Crocodile bites back

Posted By: March 06, 2017

Alex Kane. Irish News. Belfast. Monday, March 6, 2017


The biggest gaffe of the DUP’s campaign was Arlene Foster’s line: “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more.”

She seemed to be describing Sinn Féin – with whom she has been in the executive since 2007 –as a cold, dangerous, greedy, reptilian beast. She also made it sound as if it was somehow in her personal gift what Sinn Féin, and their voters, could and couldn’t have.

It was a crass blunder: the sort of blunder that enraged a Sinn Féin voting base which hasn’t come out for years. The sort of blunder which has seen the Unionist majority wiped out in the Assembly, closed the gap between Sinn Féin and the DUP to 1200 votes, closed the gap in seats from 10 to just one,  and robbed the DUP of the crucial 30-plus seats required to deploy the petition of concern on their own. Fair enough, the DUP may have added about 23,000 to their 2016 tally, but Sinn Féin piled on 57,000.

What the crocodile comment did was provide Sinn Féin with a rallying banner. And, to be honest, they needed one. The RHI ‘scandal’ alone was never going to give them sufficient traction, nor was the usual mantra about respect, equality, and the Irish Language. So they must have be dancing in campaign headquarters when Arlene used the crocodile simile. Better still, it didn’t sound like a mere throwaway line. It was pretty clear, in Sinn Féin’s mind anyway (and to a much wider Republican/Nationalist base), that it wasn’t just a simile. It was, they believed, precisely how Foster regarded them.

Well, the crocodile has bitten back; and not just a snap, either. It has hurt her. It has weakened her. Not fatally, perhaps, but certainly enough to remind her that she is no longer what she assumed herself to be last May – political/electoral mistress of all she surveyed. She may blame the UUP for her present dilemma (her colleagues have been accusing it of gifting seats to the SDLP), but she is going to require at least two of them if she needs a petition of concern.

I suppose the most important question now is whether Sinn Féin will find it easier to deal with her? In a speech at her counting centre on Friday evening she sounded more conciliatory than she has since mid-December. Jeffrey Donaldson was very measured in his responses on Saturday – although Edwin Poots and Sammy Wilson were indulging in their usual knockabout. But the narrowness of the DUP’s lead over Sinn Féin – along with the weakness of the UUP – may mean that she wouldn’t be keen on another election anytime soon. The Republican tail is up.

Mind you, Sinn Féin may also be reluctant to chance a second ‘snap’ election. There is no guarantee that they would add to their tally and it’s also possible that Unionist parties – now thoroughly spooked – would cut a deal to maximize cooperation, votes and seats. I haven’t done the sums, but I’m pretty sure that a pact could yield a few more seats. And, as we all know, when Unionism is in trouble it returns to the mantra of: ‘United we stand. Divided we fall.’

So, there is reason to suppose that a deal between Foster (assuming she survives) and O’Neill is possible. I don’t think it could be concluded within three weeks but if the parties want to avoid another election and the British and Irish governments don’t want to be lumbered with the problem, then there’s probably enough wriggle room. It’s amazing what can be done if both parties actually want it to be done. Having been so badly damaged on Thursday,  I’m pretty sure that Foster won’t want to compound the damage by having devolution (in which the DUP can still present itself as a kingmaker of sorts) replaced with direct rule (in which the two governments would deal over her bandaged head.)