A return to direct rule in Northern Ireland is “inevitable” and there is “no chance” that negotiations between the DUP and Sinn Fein will produce a functioning executive within the three week deadline set by ministers, according to the senior DUP MP Sammy Wilson.
In an interview with the New Statesman, Wilson accused Sinn Fein – who won just one seat fewer than the DUP in last month’s snap assembly election – of being uncommitted to Northern Ireland’s devolution settlement, arguing the republicans’ red lines indicate they have no intention of forming a new executive.
Sinn Fein cut short power-sharing talks last week, having criticised Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire’s approach as “waffle, waffle, and more waffle”. Further cross-party talks reportedly collapsed moments before they were slated to resume on Tuesday night.
Wilson’s admission that talks at Stormont look destined for failure come days after Brokenshire threatened parties with the prospect of a third election in the space of twelve months should talks end in deadlock. Though Brokenshire maintains he is “not contemplating anything other than a return to devolved government”, East Antrim MP Wilson said Sinn Fein’s insistence that DUP leader Arlene Foster step aside made a deal between the two parties virtually impossible.
“There is no chance of a settlement in three weeks,” he said. “The government has then got to make a decision: do they extend the talks period for a while or do they simply accept the inevitable and impose direct rule? I don’t think they can afford to extend the talks period for too long.”
While Sinn Fein have stipulated that they will not return to government while the scandal-hit Foster is still in post, Wilson said his party would “not allow” the former first minister to resign – and went on to claim Sinn Fein’s insistence that she did so revealed it was angling for a return to direct rule. “That kind of attitude is symptomatic where they are about devolution,” he said. “I don’t believe they’re serious about making devolution work again.
“They’re never going to say they want direct rule publicly, but the conditions they’ve laid down are an indication that they’re trying to ensure that they can blame any recriminations from their electorate on Arlene Foster.”
He added: “The one thing I am absolutely sure of is that no party is going to allow another party – and especially not a party which has sought to demonise their leader – to decide who their leader and ministers are going to be. Politicians should never accede to a demand from their opponents to rule someone out for a certain position and we will not do that.”
Wilson, a former Stormont finance minister, went on to say that Sinn Fein’s insistence on setting what were in his view unworkable red lines ahead of negotiations – chief among them Foster’s departure, an Irish language act and a new, independent body for dealing with outstanding Troubles cases – meant that the second election mooted by Brokenshire would exacerbate rather than resolve the impasse.
“I see no reason why Arlene would or should stand aside, and indeed I think it would be wrong for her to stand aside. But say she does: you’re still left with all of Sinn Fein’s other red lines,” he said. “The Irish language act, issues around the security forces and the past – all toxic in of themselves. Arlene stepping down would embolden them to push those issues as well. So it’ll be just as difficult – and perhaps even harder – to form an executive after a second election, especially if Sinn Fein’s vote goes down.”
With Sinn Fein running second in some polls in the Irish Republic – ahead of governing party Fine Gael – Wilson argued that a return to government in the North would undermine its anti-austerity platform. “I have no doubt that, since the elections in the Republic are in two years’ time, and because they’re riding quite high in the polls, they’re painting this picture of a promised land where you don’t have to make hard choices or have austerity. It’s convenient for them not to have to take decisions in Northern Ireland lest parties in the south point out they’re shutting hospitals, putting through a tough budget and compromising on Brexit – otherwise they’ll be branded hypocrites when they claim they’re against austerity in the republic and Gerry Adams would see his poll ratings slide very, very quickly.”
Wilson also predicted that in the event of a second election unionist parties would regain their overall majority at Stormont, which was lost for the first time in almost 100 years at last month’s election. Though the DUP’s election campaign has been much criticised in the press and by senior party figures including Ian Paisley Jr for its negative focus and relentless attacks on Sinn Fein, Wilson said the republicans’ approach to negotiations had vindicated his party’s decision and denied it had ran a “scare campaign”, and accused the Northern Irish media of “hyping up” and “scandalising” the £500 million Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that brought the last executive down.
“I don’t think the tactics were wrong,” he said. “We’d said that this was an election that was designed to bring Gerry Adams back onto the scene and that Sinn Fein had replaced Martin McGuinness with a puppet leader in the form of Michelle O’Neill – Gerry Adams was looking for someone who he could dominate. And that’s what’s happened subsequently, of course! Plenty of people have said that at press conferences she stands there like a nodding dog and he does all the talking, and the same is true of negotiations – he’s the one that’s taken the lead there.”
Wilson added he was yet to detect any open or private dissent against the DUP’s embattled leader, who on Saturday said her party was “not quite there yet” on whether it would nominate her for first minister. “Even if there were people who wanted that, I think they know that in the hothouse political climate in which we live at present that would cut your throat politically anyway,” he said. “If anything, people have been so incensed by the way that Arlene has been treated throughout the election and the unfair way that she and our position has been portrayed. We are even more determined to ensure she doesn’t step down.”