Sam McBride: Tribalistic politics ascendant, leaving little hope for Stormont

For the vast majority of this year, Stormont has not been the seat of government
For the vast majority of this year, Stormont has not been the seat of government

After weeks where a return of devolution appeared increasingly unlikely, the events of the last 48 hours have left the situation bleaker than bleak.

For a brief period – 83 minutes in fact – on Thursday night after the DUP leader outlined a compromise proposal on the Irish language, there was the potential for a sudden change in the mood between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

But the brusque Sinn Fein response, issued within less than an hour and a half of Arlene Foster’s speech, indicates that Gerry Adams’ party is not in the mood for a compromise deal but is holding out for virtually everything on its long list of demands.

Senior DUP figures have made clear privately that it would be politically impossible for Mrs Foster to accede to all of Sinn Fein’s demands, even if she were so minded, which she is not.

Even Mrs Foster’s offer of undefined Irish language legislation at an unspecified date and balanced by some cultural protection for Ulster-Scots or Orange culture would provoke significant disquiet among her colleagues and supporters.

One DUP member last night said privately that Mrs Foster had been fortunate that her overture had been rejected immediately, rather than it developing because she would have faced “extreme pressure from her base”.

It may be that Sinn Fein will come to regret the haste with which it brushed aside Mrs Foster’s offer because the perception was that republicans did not even study it in any great detail before saying no.

But on the periphery of the main DUP-Sinn Fein action on Thursday night, it was striking how their smaller rivals, the UUP and SDLP, essentially rowed in behind the larger party’s position, the SDLP immediately dismissing Mrs Foster’s gesture and the UUP welcoming the DUP move.

The views of those smaller, and ostensibly more moderate, parties will have been informed by a summer of listening to their supporters and are indicative of how suddenly politics in Northern Ireland has moved to the constitutional extremes.

Just six months after the UUP and SDLP presented a quasi-common campaign as Stormont’s first official opposition since 1972, they now sound like barely watered down versions of their larger rivals.

And while ultimately those parties stand to be decimated if they continue on their current trajectory, they are reacting to a far wider – and fearfully tribalistic – retreat to the politics of the Troubles, minus the violence.

Although it is fashionable to blame “the politicians” for the current impasse, they are the representatives of the people and there is every reason to believe that if there is another election support for the DUP and Sinn Fein will increase even further.

This is what people have voted for.