Sam McBride: SF intriguingly keen to quash claims that it is finished with Stormont

To the frustration of political purists, it has long been the case that Westminster elections in Northern Ireland are rarely fought on Westminster issues.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 20th May 2017, 8:33 am
Updated Sunday, 4th June 2017, 9:40 pm
Gerry Adams and Michelle ONeill  saw Sinn Fein come back with a stunning election result in March. Picture: Niall Carson /PA Wire
Gerry Adams and Michelle ONeill saw Sinn Fein come back with a stunning election result in March. Picture: Niall Carson /PA Wire

But this general election campaign is uniquely dominated by Stormont – or rather the lack of any devolved executive at Stormont.

The DUP has increasingly been attempting to frame itself as the party which wants to get Stormont back. In an attempt to demonstrate her sincerity, Arlene Foster has very publicly dropped her pledge that there will never be an Irish language act – a signal that the DUP is preparing its supporters for significant compromises in order to get back into power.

In March, Sinn Fein rode the crest of a wave of nationalist anger at the DUP over Mrs Foster’s handling of the RHI scandal and a wider perception that her party had become arrogant and untouchable.

Having pulled off an exceptional result, coming within one seat of the DUP, it would have been politically reckless for Sinn Fein to rush back into Stormont without big concessions which it could trumpet.

In the days after the election, there was a point at which there was some internal DUP debate as to Mrs Foster’s position. If the party had pushed her out, that would have satisfied Sinn Fein’s firmest demand – that Mrs Foster could not be first minister while the RHI inquiry was ongoing.

However, it quickly became clear that Mrs Foster was going to stay and she led the DUP into the post-election Stormont talks. According to sources from several parties in those talks, the DUP was making significant concessions during the negotiations. However, according to one senior source, as the DUP began to move, apparently Sinn Fein also began to move – but not to close the gap between their two positions.

That heightened DUP fears that Gerry Adams is now focussed on getting into power in Dublin and either no longer prioritises Belfast, or perhaps even views making the difficult choices of government at Stormont as undermining his populist oppositional rhetoric south of the border.

The departure of key DUP strategist Richard Bullick – who witnessed the talks at first hand – to the private sector after 17 years at the heart of the DUP has been read by many people as an indication that he was pessimistic about the prospects of devolution returning quickly.

If Sinn Fein continues to grow its vote in this election, it would be difficult to interpret that as anything other than an electoral endorsement of the party’s hardline stance in refusing to go back into Stormont unless the DUP meets all its demands.

In that scenario, a quick deal to restore devolution would appear less likely, particularly with the clock ticking towards almost certain direct rule in July due to the prospect of public sector workers starting to lose jobs at that point because of the failure of the last Executive to pass a budget.

However, some senior republicans have in recent days been attempting to quash the idea that they don’t want to return to Stormont.

They stress that it is not in Sinn Fein’s interests to see direct rule return – not only because it would mean a Tory government with a landslide majority running Northern Ireland, but because for republicans to persuade a majority of the population to vote for a united Ireland in any future border poll Sinn Fein needs to be able to demonstrate that it can govern fairly on behalf of everyone.

Whether or not Sinn Fein is enthusiastic about returning to Stormont, the fact that some senior republicans are seeking to quash the DUP narrative on this issue is intriguing.

It suggests that although a segment of nationalism (and, for different reasons, plenty of unionists) would be quite happy to consign to history what they viewed as a cumbersome and ineffective Stormont system, that Sinn Fein perhaps believes it could suffer electorally if it is seen to be the party which is most unhasting about resurrecting devolved government – especially if that leads to Tory rule.