Sam McBride: Sudden DUP and SF U-turns could lead to a Stormont built on sand

In an attempt to outmanoeuvre its main political rival, Sinn Fein yesterday appeared to publicly give away two significant concessions in a talks process which has been shrouded in secrecy.

Sinn Fein supporters could face daily visual reminders of a U-turn if Michelle ONeill returned to Stormont Castle with Arlene Foster
Sinn Fein supporters could face daily visual reminders of a U-turn if Michelle ONeill returned to Stormont Castle with Arlene Foster

Senior Sinn Fein figure Conor Murphy yesterday rounded on the SDLP, dismissing the party’s criticisms of its larger rival and asking which of Sinn Fein’s demands the SDLP would be prepared to abandon in order to secure agreement with the DUP.

However, in the list of demands which Mr Murphy cited (inquests into Troubles killings, LGBT rights and “recognition and acceptance of Irish cultural identity”) there were two glaring omissions.

He made no mention of Sinn Fein’s insistence on a bill of rights (which just a fortnight ago Gerry Adams presented as one of the key blockages to getting a deal) and also failed to even mention what was once Sinn Fein’s sole red line in the process: A demand that Arlene Foster stand aside as first minister until the public inquiry into the RHI scandal is complete.

The episode hints at what could be a profound problem for both the DUP and Sinn Fein over coming weeks if they do strike a last-minute deal.

The parties – which pride themselves on discipline and have always been remarkably centralised around a handful of key figures – have kept this talks process largely leak-free and they have presented little real detail of any of the real meat of what is being hammered out behind closed doors.

While they have faced criticism for that, it has allowed them the space in which to engage without a public debate as to whether they should or should not compromise on specific key details.

But while that tight control has been useful up to now, it could be the source of future problems.

There is no sense among republican or unionist grassroots that a major compromise is looming.

The hints – such as Mr Murphy’s curtailed list of demands – have been so oblique as to pass by all but the keenest observers of a protracted process which most ordinary people are now largely ignoring.

Sinn Fein’s apparent abandonment of its demand that Mrs Foster step aside as first minister is particularly tricky for Gerry Adams because it was on that platform which the party polled so remarkably in March’s election.

Prior to that election, although the Irish language act was repeatedly cited as a demand, the party resolutely refused to state that it was a red line issue.

If Michelle O’Neill is about to head back into Stormont Castle with Mrs Foster just as the RHI inquiry is about to begin its public hearings, Sinn Fein’s supporters will face daily visual reminders of the U-turn.

For the DUP, there have been clear hints to those who are watching that the party is prepared to compromise on an Irish language act and is now battling over the timing, title and content of such legislation rather than the principle that there will be such an act of the Assembly.

But the party has never explicitly explained to its supporters that if it wants to get back into Stormont, which it does, that it will require a compromise on Irish.

In fact, several senior DUP figures have confidently told the News Letter over recent weeks that there will not be an Irish language act – and some others have done so publicly.

Sinn Fein’s collapse of Stormont in January was driven by a grassroots revolt from people who believed that the party’s MLAs were out of touch with those who put them there.

Having received vast mandates for tough positions, and with scant evidence that their supporters have the sort of love for Stormont necessary to accept major compromises to secure its return, a sudden U-turn could see a return to a Stormont which is built on sand and vulnerable to another rebellion from ordinary unionists or nationalists.