Newton Emerson has an article up on the Irish Times about Sinn Féin ’s confused approach to the current Northern Ireland political impasse. He accuses Michelle O’Neill of trying to contort reality into an archaic Republican world view during her current trip to Washington.
Apparently, according to Emerson’s view of Sinn Féin , the problem is the British, and specifically the Tory, failure to put sufficient pressure on the DUP to force their return to operating the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
But according to Emerson, Sinn Féin have it the wrong way around. The British are putting huge pressure on the DUP to return to business by threatening them (and Northern Ireland) with a “punishment” budget for which the DUP will get the blame.
Biden, having already pressurised the British government into adopting the Windsor Framework, avoiding the coronation, and visiting Norther Ireland to ensure “the British didn’t screw around”, is supposed to put more pressure on Sunak on his visit to Washington on a forlorn mission looking for a trade deal “in all but name”.
But according to Emerson, Sinn Féin have no ideas for how the British Government is actually supposed to force the DUP back into the assembly or Executive, short of reforming the rules on mandatory coalition – something Sinn Féin also opposes for the very obvious reason that they, too, would lose their veto on forming an Executive or operating the Assembly.
Call me ignorant or cynical, but isn’t Emerson missing the obvious game being played here? The last thing Sinn Féin want is to let the DUP off the hook they have impaled themselves on. So long as Northern Ireland “isn’t working” and the DUP is getting the blame, Sinn Féin are quids in, gaining in the polls, and colonising even more of what used to be called “the centre ground” people who mostly support the constitutional status quo but are increasingly embarrassed by the antics of the DUP.
Sinn Féin’s focus on forcing the DUP “back to work” is actually designed to make it more difficult for the DUP to end their veto for fear of being seen to cave in to Sinn Féin and UK government pressure, and at the same time absolving Sinn Féin from all blame for the current impasse.
The big prize for Sinn Féin is for Mary Lou McDonald to become Taoiseach when she will be dealing with the Sunak’s of this world as an equal rather than being excluded from consultations with Northern Ireland party leaders. Anything which distracts from that must be avoided at all costs.
Sinn Féin know that the First Ministership of Northern Ireland is a booby prize at best, implementing austerity in Northern Ireland at a time when they are lambasting the Irish government of doing precisely that in the south. It will do their prospects down south no good at all if they are seen to be overseeing the public health care crisis in the North when that will be one of the two major issues in the next Irish general election as well.
The current imbroglio allows Sinn Féin to position themselves as the party of sweet reasonableness not just in Northern Ireland, but in the south as well. They can’t even be accused of sectarian divisiveness within Northern Ireland by blaming the British government rather than the DUP. Even moderates have never quite forgiven the British government for foisting Brexit on Northern Ireland against their wishes. Blaming Brexiteer Britain for just about everything is a cost free exercise for Sinn Féin right now and plays well to the international gallery as well.
Anti-British government sentiments play well in Irish American organisations who do still tend to frame the Northern Ireland question in what Emmerson likes to characterise as archaic republican terms. America was once a UK colony as well and still has an atavistic memory of how that feels. Some Hollywood movies still cast a posh Brit as the bad guy – a synonym for arrogance, conceit, privilege, and indifference to the concerns of others.
So, Sinn Féin have a lot to thank the DUP for, for playing the fall guy in this movie. “Never interrupt your enemy while he is busy making a mistake” is a Napoleonic maxim that hasn’t lost its relevance. Whatever will Sinn Féin do if they do actually have to “make Northern Ireland Work” at a time when they are proclaiming its failure and calling for its dissolution.
And whatever will Sinn Féin do if the UK government ever does call nationalism’s bluff and announces a border poll when that is not what even the Irish current government wants right now?
Patience with the DUP may be running out in Westminster right now,(and that link to a Newsletter story is dated June 2022!), but does anybody have a plan B? The disarray in Scots nationalism may make the departure of Northern Ireland from the UK a less disconcerting precedent, especially if, like Brexit, it turns out to be a cautionary tale, and this time for Ireland. And hardly anyone is even mentioning Direct Rule as a long term option anymore.
Sunak needs a game changer if he is to survive the next General Election and take the English public’s mind off Brexit. Meetings of the British Irish Inter-Governmental Council or polite chats with President Biden don’t cut it. Does he have any emotional attachment to Northern Ireland at a time when the UK government could dearly use the £10-15 Billion Northern Ireland subvention to shore up the UK government finances elsewhere?
There remains the small matter of persuading a majority in Northern Ireland to vote for a United Ireland, but what better way than to implement a “punishment budget” to encourage any swing voters to vote for an alternative dispensation, provided the Irish government can come up with a better offer with their government surpluses?
Of course, we are a long way from that just yet, but the DUP are playing with fire. Just what do they hope to achieve by a further prolonged disablement of democracy in Northern Ireland and trying Sunak’s patience even more? The credit for heading off a punishment budget? They would have to act quickly if they are to get any credit for that.
Everyone knows the DUP are now engaging in an elaborate face saving exercise, but there is very little face left to save. They haven’t even clarified what further changes they would require to end their boycott, and everyone else, including former allies in the ERG, have moved on.
There are votes to be had in just being thran in Northern Ireland, but it is a becoming a rapidly diminishing demographic, as the recent local elections showed. Consolidating the DUP’s lead in a diminishing pool of unionist votes may come to resemble reigning in Hell as opposed to serving in Heaven if they are held responsible for the very real difficulties caused to the vast majority by the public expenditure cuts.
Even their Tory allies aren’t playing nice anymore, and Michelle O’Neill will get an easy ride in Washington putting all the blame on the DUP and the UK government, with the subtext being that only a change of sovereignty can resolve matters. Newton Emmerson is right to be concerned.
Frank Schnittger is a former senior executive in a leading multinational in Dublin and London and has a Masters in Peace Studies from Trinity College. He has been a director of a number of charitable and voluntary organisations in the community development, education, holistic addiction treatment and restorative justice sectors. He is editor of the European Tribune and a moderator of the Irish Rugby Fan Forum.