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11 June 2017

Even without a Tory-DUP deal, power-sharing in Northern Ireland looks doomed

The UK government's potential confidence and supply arrangement could well suit Sinn Fein as well as it suits the DUP.

By Patrick Maguire

With the DUP in negotiations to prop up a minority Conservative government, focus has drifted from the other set of talks the party is engaged in: those aimed at restoring the Northern Irish executive, which collapsed in February and still looks a very long way from restoration. James Brokenshire, who has kept his job as Northern Ireland secretary, has set a “final and immovable” deadline of June 29 for a deal. 

In some respects the deal is nothing new. Many of those tuning into Northern Irish politics for the first time are asking whether the deal undermines the government’s ability to act as a neutral arbiter in the talks to come.

As far as most politicians at Stormont are concerned, that question was settled some months ago: it can’t.

In the last parliament the government relied on the DUP’s eight votes to insulate itself against the whims of its more mutinous backbenchers. That fact was enough to create an abiding impression at Stormont that James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland Secretary, is a biased and partisan mediator. Though Irish foreign minister Charlie Flanagan argued this morning that the Tories’ confidence and supply deal need not necessarily compromise Brokenshire, it is ultimately the perception that matters.

So the prospect of a formalised deal between May and the unionists is, in the immediate term at least, a boon for Sinn Fein (who, as the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, must enter coalition with the DUP).

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It is no surprise that Gerry Kelly, a senior assembly member, told reporters today that the party was unconcerned by their rivals’ support for the incoming government. Sinn Fein’s ability to play hardball in the power-sharing talks of recent months – which notionally resume tomorrow – has depended on their ability to cast Arlene Foster as the sole author of the executive’s collapse and the stalemate that followed. This arrangement will allow them to do so. 

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The republicans are playing a high stakes game: they know the mandate they won in March’s snap assembly election, which saw the unionist parties lose their overall majority for the first time ever, was as much a mandate to reject Stormont as it was to salvage it.

But Foster, whose refusal to resign over her role in the £500 million Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and reputation for truculence on issues such as equal marriage and legal recognition for the Irish language, is no longer an electoral millstone around her party’s neck. The DUP’s commanding general election performance proves that much. Having made two gains and increased its number of MPs to ten, it now holds a majority of Northern Irish MPs. Its rehabilitated leader has charted an emollient tack in recent months and now strikes conciliatory poses: first attending Martin McGuinness’ funeral (Foster’s father was shot by the IRA), then visiting an Irish-medium school.

These were not empty gestures, nor can they have been easy ones to make. But they were astute politically. Sinn Fein, which has claimed the DUP’s lack of “respect” makes reforming the executive near-impossible, risked looking like they were preventing the restoration of devolved government for the sake of empty grievances.

It has plenty of legitimate grievances now. Though Michelle O’Neill stressed earlier today that her party’s focus “remains on entering talks to re-establish an Executive that delivers for all on the basis of equality, respect and integrity”, the DUP-Tory pact will inevitably allow Sinn Fein to argue that goal is unachievable.

They are already emboldened: the party has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself from the coming talks in favour of an independent mediator, preferably from abroad. This is anathema to unionists – who resent the implication that Northern Ireland is anything other than an integral part of the UK – and Sinn Fein knows it. Legitimate though concerns over Brokenshire’s partiality are, Gerry Adams might as well ask for talks to be convened in Las Vegas.

Existing disagreements look set to be exacerbated too. A new settlement for dealing with unsolved Troubles cases remains an area of bitter, near-insoluble contention. On this issue Brokenshire has moved in lockstep with the DUP, who believe that existing investigations focus disproportionately on police and forces veterans.

Brokenshire has promised to make good on promises for a “victim-centred approach” to legacy issues but the influence of the DUP means the definition of victim is unlikely to be acceptable to Sinn Fein. So too the Tory manifesto, whose section on Northern Ireland promised “new bodies for addressing the legacy of the past in fair, balanced and proportionate ways which do not unfairly focus on former members of the Armed Forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary”.

Should the new government make this a priority – and there is every reason to believe it will – then there is little chance of Sinn Fein agreeing to serve in an executive. In February, Brokenshire told the Commons that he believed “that with hard work on all sides the outstanding areas of disagreement [on legacy issues] are bridgeable”. A situation whereby the government relies on the DUP to survive gives neither they nor Sinn Fein – the two sides that ultimately matter – much incentive to work very hard at all.

Yawning gaps on equal marriage, the Irish language, and the special post-Brexit status to which the DUP are opposed remain. For Sinn Fein to yoke itself to the facilitators of Tory government would look very bad indeed – especially with the prospect of a snap election in the Irish republic still very much alive. These are not new issues, but the Tories have injected them with renewed potency.

Now, as negotiations whose deadline has been extended four times already begin again, neither side has much incentive to make good on their promises to restore devolved government. And with James Brokenshire running out of options, Ulster’s electors might yet face their fifth national election in a little over a year. Save for Sinn Fein and DUP gains at the expense of their smaller rivals – after Thursday all but wiped out at Westminster level – there are unlikely to be many winners.