Northern Ireland election: Do Sinn Fein want direct rule from London?

The Republicans are setting out unachievable "red lines" for any power-sharing agreement with the DUP. What's the plan?

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Northern Ireland goes to the polls today - with results due tomorrow. But have the weeks of rancorous and unenlightening debate all been for nothing?

Today’s vote, triggered in January by the resignation of Sinn Fein’s deputy first minister Martin McGuinness over the “cash for ash” scandal, is likely to produce an assembly that bears more than a passing resemblance to the last.

Arlene Foster's DUP will surely take a modest hit in support amid criticism of its handling of the £500 million renewable energy fiasco, but it is overwhelmingly likely to remain Stormont’s largest party – aided by (relatively) low turnout, an aggressive campaign and an overall reduction in seats from 108 to 90.

Sinn Fein, now led by the untested Michelle O’Neill after McGuinness’ retirement on health grounds, will probably come second. As per Northern Ireland’s power-sharing rules, they will be obliged to at least attempt to form an executive alongside the DUP.

But Sinn Fein doesn't want to work with Foster - who Martin McGuinness accused of exhibiting "deep seated arrogance" in his resignation letter - citing the "cash for ash" scandal. So unless Foster has a dramatic change of heart and steps aside, Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire will be left, effectively, to rule by decree from London.

A return to direct rule would represent a decisive failure for the devolution settlement Northern Ireland has enjoyed since 2007, demolish the hard-won notion that Northern Irish issues are for Northern Irish politicians to deal with, and resurrect the apparatus of government associated with uglier times.

Dire predictions over what this will mean for Ulster – perennially neglected by the mainland media – come thick and fast. London taking the reins would be “very dangerous,” says Foster. “The worst of both worlds,” says the Irish Times leader column. Foster's predecessor, Peter Robinson, warns Ulster would face years of "isolation and impotence", while Colm Eastwood, the leader of the moderate nationalist SDLP, says the “very idea” of power sharing could be at risk.

But what of Sinn Fein? Herein lies the irony that will confuse lay observers on the English side of the Irish Sea. As Jeremy Corbyn has discovered, the rest of the UK tends to associate the party not with a decade of stable government in Northern Ireland but with the terrorism of the Provisional IRA. Yet Sinn Fein, more than any other party, appears to be be open to a return to hands-on government from London.

Although the party's campaign team would not recognise the term, they have essentially drawn up a series of impossible "red lines", which will be unacceptable to the DUP. Chief among them is an Irish Language Act which would give Gaelic equal status with English in public institutions (this was enshrined in the 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement but blocked by the DUP). There is also equal marriage (supported by a majority of assembly members but blocked by a DUP petition of concern last year); a Northern Irish bill of rights; and a comprehensive agreement on the victims of conflict. These, they say, are not new demands, but existing agreements stymied and obstructed by the DUP.

Sinn Fein has, in addition, demanded that Foster step aside while an investigation into the renewable energy scandal is completed. Michelle O'Neill has said James Brokenshire should not chair negotiations as he is no longer an “honest broker”. While it’s more than fair for Sinn Fein to argue that Theresa May's government has shown demonstrable bias towards the DUP at Westminster, they might as well be arguing for negotiations to take place on the moon.

The party is well aware its key demands are unpalatable for the DUP, and has foreseen the consequences. While this might appear a confused and self-defeating strategy – why would Sinn Fein surrender its guaranteed political power to an unsympathetic Tory government in London? – the calculation is that the potential gains outweigh the pain.

The most pointed sections of Martin McGuinness’ resignation letter weren’t about the "cash for ash" scandal, but about the unassailable cultural gulf between his party’s worldview and that of the DUP, whose support and personnel are drawn primarily from Ulster's religious right. "Apart from negative attitude to nationalism and to the Irish identity and culture, there has been a shameful disrespect towards many other sections of our community," McGuinnes wrote. "Women, the LGBT community and ethnic minorities have all felt this prejudice. And for those who wish to live their lives through the medium of Irish elements in the DUP have exhibited the most crude and crass bigotry".These vexed questions of cultural identity have been hanging over Stormont for several years.

With this in mind, it is unsurprising that Sinn Fein might assume that by leveraging its status as the biggest nationalist party it can secure these contentious concessions from Brokenshire and the Northern Ireland Office where it wouldn’t from Foster. Then, with the most contentious issues resolved, it could form part of a new executive.

Professor Peter Shirlow, director of Liverpool University’s Institute of Irish Studies, agrees: “Direct rule will undertake the heavy lifting of all of the contentious issues except for victims. What that would mean for both parties is that they can come back and say ‘it wasn’t us, they brought it in against our will, we will continue to work together and be the government'.”

The promise of an external mediator – who will likely seek substantive input from the Irish government - to resolve these issues is an alluring one. Sinn Fein have much to gain from an extended period of strategic bargaining. While the DUP has said it will not feed the nationalist “crocodile” by making concessions over issues such as the Irish Language Act - in case Sinn Fein returns for more - Brokenshire will likely have little option but to give ground. Indeed, there is much speculation that the basic framework of a direct rule deal is already in place, and the moderate unionist and nationalist parties – the UUP and SDLP - are increasingly resigned to Stormont remaining mothballed in the medium term.

Beyond this there is, however, another motivation at play: self-preservation. In its pitch to those voters at risk of deserting it over cash for ash, the DUP campaign has attacked Sinn Fein as dangerous, radical and fiscally illiterate with such regularity it makes Zac Goldsmith's mayoral campaign look kittenish. To shore up its increasingly precarious position in nationalist strongholds, Sinn Fein must prove the opposite. A new feature of the assembly elected last May was the presence of four anti-austerity MLAs – two Greens and two from the hard-left People Before Profit.

Untainted by government, these smaller parties have painted Sinn Fein as establishment sell-outs – with some success. PBP, led by the charismatic Gerry Carroll, has particularly spooked Sinn Fein, and is cannibalising the nationalist vote in previously safe seats including Foyle and West Belfast. Taking a stand over cooperation with the DUP would allow Sinn Fein to reassert its identity and re-energise its base. Its politicians are themselves anti-austerity populists, and cannot be seen to sign off on yet more cuts if they want to keep the radical left in its box.

Direct rule offers a useful opportunity to duck decisions that, in the current climate, would amount to acts of electoral self-harm. This tactic might backfire, though. Dysfunctional and unloved though Stormont may be, a lengthy impasse, and the lack of a Northern Irish voice as the Brexit process begins, could fuel further resentment.

But with neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein appearing receptive to compromise, it’s hard to see another way forward. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.