North gliding towards direct rule in new year

Posted By: December 30, 2017

Amid speculation of a fresh round of negotiations aimed at restoring devolution, political correspondent John Manley asks if Republicans have any appetite for a return to Stormont
John Manley. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, December 39, 2017

In the latter half of the decade that saw the longest uninterrupted period of devolution since 1972, talking and solving problems around the table was the done thing.

First, we had Richard Haass’s failed attempt to address flags, parades, and the past, then in successive years came the Stormont House and Fresh Start agreements, two deals that were meant to put power-sharing on a stronger footing.

It would be wrong to say previous agreements were never mentioned in the negotiations that led to Stormont House and Fresh Start but neither deal included pledges to implement what had been agreed years before, suggesting Sinn Féin was either too trusting of the DUP or that Republicans weren’t overly concerned about putting an Irish language act in place.

When the latter was signed off in November 2015, the late Martin McGuinness said it represented a new opportunity.

“This agreement signals our endeavor to engender the sea change which our community is demanding – a new beginning for politics and an opportunity to move forward with a real sense of purpose,” the then deputy first minister said.

However, it seems to have done nothing of the sorta point Sinn Féin has labored for much of 2017 as the party shaped a new narrative that said the Stormont experiment was a failure.

It may be little over two years since Fresh Start, but the political landscape has changed significantly, with Brexit and minority governments in both Westminster and the Dáil.

The personalities at the heads of Stormont’s main parties have also changed, and unionism no longer has a majority of MLAs.

The UK’s vote to leave the EU has resulted in a groundswell of support for Irish unity and the Republic’s new-look electoral map potentially offers an unprecedented opportunity for Sinn Féin to enter government, but the party appears in no hurry to reboot the Stormont executive and work devolution to its advantage.

While there is much justification for Republicans’ reluctance to restore the institutions ahead of firm commitments from the DUP and the British government, a suspicion persists that there’s more to their strategy.

As a party founded on agitation, any instability which threatens to bring down the old guard gives Sinn Féin an advantage, and at the moment the party appears content to sit back and see how events unfold.

It could be argued that creating unachievable red lines gives Republicans the cover they require to absent from Stormont, while DUP doggedness makes such an approach look entirely natural.

Looking back nostalgically on a decade of devolution as if it were characterized by good relations, full employment, and non-existent waiting lists may prove popular on the airwaves, but it paints an inaccurate picture of how things were. The big issues were kicked down the road, while inertia was justified on the basis that it was better than what went before.

Talk of a renewed process bringing the DUP and Sinn Féin together in the new year is as much about media expectation rather than hope, as there’s nothing to suggest a breakthrough is imminent – wherever they choose to convene the fresh talks.

Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that this phase of the peace process has essentially run its course and without major events changing the current course significantly, we are destined to glide towards direct rule sometime in the first half of this year.

At the moment, it appears The North’s two biggest parties would be content with that outcome.