The executive will splutter on but Speaker has to go

Posted By: December 28, 2016

Robin Newton is facing calls to vacate the speaker’s office

Brian Feeney. Irish News. Belfast. Wednesday, December 28, 2016

YOU can hardly say the year is ending on a political high note. On the other hand, if you look back either to December 2013 or 2014 there’s no comparison.

Then the odds were on the collapse of the whole edifice at Stormont. In 2013 the DUP-inspired flag protests and roadblocks led to a high number of police casualties and an unprecedented number of arrests.

In both years talks about the big issues of flags, Orange marches and the past ended in failure. This December there’s none of that.

A row at the Stormont assembly doesn’t affect anyone’s life apart from raised blood pressure among MLAs.

The assembly is powerless anyway. It’s what happens in the executive that matters and the executive isn’t going to collapse.

It will splutter on with the DUP and Sinn Féin glowering at each other. Neither party will walk away. They both have very different reasons for hanging in.

In the end, the whole Ruritanian rigmarole is more important to the DUP. For Sinn Féin it’s a sideshow to the main event, the Dáil and getting into coalition with Fianna Fáil. If and when that happens, and it’s looking increasingly likely at the next election in the Republic, then the DUP need to wind their necks in.

There’s one major difficulty preventing the obvious coalition between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin: Gerry Adams. Micheál Martin has made it clear repeatedly that he will not go into coalition with Sinn Féin if Adams is leader.

This situation bears an uncanny resemblance to 1948. Then, although Fianna Fáil won most seats in the general election they fell six seats short of a majority.

A combination of Fine Gael, Labour, Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan plus independents could form a government.

The problem came down to one man: the leader of Fine Gael, Richard Mulcahy. A former IRA chief of staff (spot the coincidence) Mulcahy had supported the Treaty and as minister of defense during the Civil War was responsible for the policy of executing anti-Treaty men found carrying weapons, often his former comrades in arms.

Seventy-seven men were duly executed. Mulcahy as Taoiseach was unacceptable to Seán McBride, leader of Clann Na Poblachta and himself a former IRA chief of staff.

Mulcahy took the honorable decision. He stood aside and persuaded his Fine Gael colleague John Costello to become the leader of Fine Gael in the Dáil and Taoiseach. Mulcahy remained as party leader, though in name only.

This precedent is of course well known to Micheál Martin and everyone else in the Dáil including Adams. Martin has been very careful not to say he won’t go into coalition with Sinn Féin full stop. He always adds  ‘with Adams as leader,’ or words to that effect.

Most observers believe there won’t be an election in the Republic next year, or at least until after Britain triggers Article 50 and negotiations for Britain’s divorce from the real world begin.

The timing is in Fianna Fáil’s gift since it’s they who are keeping Fine Gael afloat. That’s plenty of time for Adams to do a Mulcahy, install Mary Lou as Tánaiste and remain as president for life of Sinn Féin.

Then with a Sinn Féin Tánaiste in Dublin let the DUP beware,  for Sinn Féin in The North need not put up with any shenanigans. Who would lose then if Conor Murphy pulled the plug on Stormont?

In the meantime,  to satisfy their fuming supporters,  Sinn Féin need a scalp, and that has to be the political nonentity Arlene Foster installed in the Speaker’s chair.

He’s hopelessly compromised and not up to the job. All the other parties have called for his resignation. Sinn Féin figures say he has to go.

Together the parties who walked out last Monday have the power to unseat him, and the procedures allow them to do it.

Sinn Féin and the DUP will have to agree on a replacement, but this is more than an opportunity to give Foster a necessary bloody nose, the inevitable consequence of her hubris.

It’s a chance to establish new rules ensuring the Assembly elects the Speaker and manifestly separating him or her from their party.