Stargazing to figure out a political future

Posted By: September 18, 2017

Patrick Murphy.Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, September 16, 2017

This is a difficult time for astrologers, especially those who dabble in British and Irish politics. It is not much fun for columnists either, because whatever about the other heavenly bodies, this part of our planet faces three unpredictable outcomes regarding future developments in Stormont, Westminster and Leinster House.

Will Stormont reconvene? Will Westminster avoid another election before Brexit and who will win the next Dáil election? I think the answers are yes, yes and Fianna Fáil, but do not bet on any of them.

We can only be sure of three things. The first is that the outcomes in all three Assemblies will influence our lives to varying degrees in the near future. The second is that Sinn Féin has a finger in all three pies. The third certainty is that we have no idea what Sinn Féin will do.

That makes Stormont’s future the most difficult to predict. SF certainly wants the Assembly’s return, but we do not know when. Following Stormont’s collapse, this column suggested that it would not return until after the next Dáil election because SF’s record in Belfast would cause it electoral damage in Dublin.

But delaying Stormont’s resurrection can only work for so long. Even a reduced form of direct (British) rule would make SF look rather silly, especially if the £1 billion from London is conditional on Stormont’s return. It would look even less credible if SF MLAs continued to be paid in Belfast, while the party advocates a clean-up of government in Dublin.

Predicting the timing of the next Dáil election is difficult because it can be triggered either by the Fine Gael government or the Fianna Fáil opposition, which offers tacit support to the government to avoid a political impasse. (Stormont parties don’t do tacit support. They just do impasse – but they do it very well.)

A Dáil election is unlikely until one of the two main parties gains a significant lead in the opinion polls. Since a government is always more vulnerable than the opposition, FF is likely to call the election in the case of a government crisis. That should swing the result to FF, which might not suit SF, which is FF’s coalition partner of last resort. Where would that leave Stormont?

Whether SF is prepared to shun Stormont until the next southern crisis is unclear. It depends on whether its demand for a stand-alone Irish Language Act is serious, or just an act. (That would make it an Irish language act, not an Irish Language Act.)

There is no doubt about Conradh na Gaeilge’s determination on the matter. But while politics is the art of the possible, our parties engage more in the art of the posse. They chase after popular causes. Some are captured, but most are abandoned or modified. Expect some modification from Sinn Féin on the Irish language.

Expect too, a rocky road to Brexit for Theresa May. As well as opposition to a hard Brexit from all parliamentary parties other than the DUP, Mrs. May also faces rebellion from within her own party.

Although she had a 36-vote majority for the second reading of the Brexit bill this week, many Tories oppose her attempt to regain powers from Brussels and invest them in the cabinet, rather than parliament.

She was helped by seven Labour Party rebels, who will not always support her. Sinn Féin’s seven MPs could reduce her majority to 22 and at least 12 Tory MPs may rebel over the bill’s next stage.

Would Sinn Féin, therefore, consider going to Westminster to prevent Brexit? Probably not, although its reasoning (‘It would be a waste of time’) is unconvincing. Sinn Féin could prevent a hard Brexit. Don’t rule it out if Gerry Adams retires early.

Three years ago few would have predicted the current state of British and Irish politics. We do not know where we will be in three years hence, but whereas astrologers use tea leaves or crystal balls, columnists have a different indicator of the political future.

We just try to understand Sinn Féin’s strategy.

A current reading of SF’s crystal ball suggests it will hold off returning to Stormont just yet, hope for an early election in Dublin and pray that Fine Gael requires a coalition partner to form a government.

That, it could claim, would be a united Ireland (of sorts) and Gerry Adams could then retire victorious. But the crystal ball only tells us the plan – and a good plan it is. It does not tell us if it will work.

For the answer to that one, you might be better reading the tea leaves.