Make-up of new Dáil critical to Stormont

Posted By: August 12, 2017

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, August 12, 2017 

For the first time in a long time, the future of Stormont depends not just on events in Belfast, but on political developments in Dublin and London.

Like two squabbling children, Sinn Féin and the DUP have run to a big brother to seek emotional support and a bit of muscle for their respective arguments.

The DUP received £1 billion worth of emotional support from the Conservatives, and Sinn Féin has reversed its previous anti-coalition policy and is now keen to join any Dublin government that will have it. Although future developments in both Westminster and the Dáil are uncertain, an analysis of the current situation in both may offer some insight into Stormont’s possible future.

British politics are a bit of mess. Theresa May is in charge of the country, but not of her own party. Her only redeeming feature is that she is not Boris Johnson, but her promise of strong and stable government has failed on both points, as evidenced by her dependence on the DUP for survival.

Many in Britain were shocked that the DUP was a historical relic dating from shortly after the Reformation, with a bit of modern Trumpism thrown in, on issues like climate change and same-sex marriage. The party’s arrival in Downing Street has not helped Mrs. May’s credibility.

How long she survives will depend largely on Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Her survival will grant the DUP a political relevance in Belfast, but its semi-detached position of influence in London is no substitute for power in Belfast. It is a bit like a deposed monarch seeking relevance in a different country while hankering to return to power at home.

It can do little in London to bring about the return of Stormont. Without Mrs. May, Stormont becomes a necessity for the DUP and without Stormont, the party becomes a memory.

Dublin politics are a bit more predictable. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have roughly the same support,  which means that both will probably need a coalition partner after the next election. Sinn Féin is the bride in waiting.

A Sinn Féin coalition with Fine Gael is more likely because Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil claim the same republican heritage. A government involving both would generate too much competition for historical purity.

(If you think that SF will refuse a partnership with a right-wing party like Fine Gael, you have obviously forgotten its 10-year marriage to the DUP. Oh, and you will have missed Gerry Adams saying last weekend how much he supported the Taoiseach on Brexit and same-sex marriage. Now, do you feel a coalition coming on?)

But both big parties are wary of a Sinn Féin coalition because they see how it walked away from the DUP, claiming it had been unfairly treated by a government in which it was an equal partner. They have a point.

Despite that, an early election is likely to promote SF into the Dublin cabinet. If that happens, Stormont will be re-established within days. Sinn Féin’s current reluctance to re-open Stormont is due to Gerry Adams having recognized the electoral damage it was suffering through the conflict between its right-wing government policies in Belfast and its left-wing opposition in Dublin.

If Mr. Varadkar decides to delay an election to boost his popularity, Stormont’s future is less predictable. He is currently more popular in the north, where he was welcomed as the “first openly gay Taoiseach”. (Does this mean there were previous Irish prime ministers who were gay, but not openly? Maybe Irish history needs a bit more revisionism.)

A lot also depends on Gerry Adams remaining as Sinn Féin leader. He reversed SF’s northern decline by withdrawing from Stormont and he is the glue which holds northern and southern Sinn Féin together.

(Some say he is in the post too long, but supporters might argue that the Queen has been on the throne for 65 years and no one is suggesting she should retire – well, apart from Prince Charles.)

When he retires, the party is likely to eventually split into northern and southern groups, held together only by sentiment. Sinn Féin’s huge talent in Dublin and the remarkable lack of it in Belfast will facilitate a Dublin-based leadership, which is likely to have a less informed understanding of Northern politics.

So Stormont’s future will be decided by working class voters in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, and Waterford, where Sinn Féin will seek support. It is likely to get that support, which means that if you want to foresee the future of the Northern Ireland Assembly, keep your eye on the Dáil, not on Westminster.