With the multiparty and intergovernmental talks to restore the peace-brokered northern assembly “parked” until after Easter, speculation is growing that the only way forward will be another round of regional elections in the north-east. I would be surprised if the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin allowed the situation to deteriorate so badly. Though they did moderately ok and very well, respectively, out of the last Stormont vote they have no guarantees that the same results will happen again. Some in the DUP might be calculating that another campaign of ethno-sectarian fearmongering will bring in some extra support, possibly aided by an electoral pact with the Ulster Unionists under their new and far more conservative leader, Robin Swann. The Antrim MLA shares many of the same reactionary views on key nationalist demands, from the Irish language to same-sex marriage, as the DUP chief, Arlene Foster (and that is before we even begin to touch upon the thorny subject of legacy issues from the era of the Irish-British Troubles). The contentious question of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union might be another factor uniting the two main pro-union parties as Swann’s off-camera views on Brexit remain the subject of much speculation.
However all this is by no means certain. The rising tide of liberal unionist opinion, in the shape of the Alliance Party, is giving others in the DUP some pause for thought. The AP achieved a good performance in the last northern election and may do the same or better again (with the help of some tactical voting by northern nationalists). Could Foster and company be alarmed by changing sentiment on the ground, however small, in some pro-union constituencies? How else to explain a sudden willingness to reach out to the newly empowered Irish-speaking community in the Six Counties, as reported by the Irish News?
“During the election campaign, Mrs Foster insisted she would not agree to Sinn Féin demands for an Irish language act and appeared to describe her former government partners as “crocodiles”.
She said yesterday: “We do want to respect and indeed better understand the language and culture which we are not a part of and, to that end, over the next short period of time, I do intend to listen and to engage with those from the Gaelic/Irish background, those without party political baggage or indeed demands, people who genuinely love the Irish language and don’t want to use it as a political weapon.”
The former first minister added: “We do recognise that there are people who love the language, who want to speak the language and be facilitated in that respect, but we also say that in respect of Ulster Scots and Orange and British identity that there needs to be respect held for those cultures as well.”
The gesture of reconciliation may be all show, a PR stunt designed to appeal to the metropolitan and cosmopolitan set, but it does betray a certain level of unease in senior DUP ranks. If the party truly believed that it was on the unionist high ground, and likely to benefit from another “bitter” election, it would not be reaching out in this manner (however poorly handled or phrased). That is not how mainstream pro-union politics works, as the many false dawns throughout the last century and more have proved (remember Peter Robinson’s much heralded “Catholic” outreach?).
Sinn Féin’s position on fresh elections in the north is rather harder to read. The party is keeping its cards very close to its chest, denying the press unfettered access to some ostensibly public meetings. Does it believe that it will get the same startling results from another election for Stormont or possibly surpass them? There seems to be little appetite among republicans to take up their seats in a restored power-sharing executive under the same conditions as the old discredited one. Meanwhile SF’s rivals in the Social Democratic and Labour Party are vacillating back and forth between arguing for a return to the status quo or the establishment of some form of explicit joint-authority between Dublin and London, with local input from Belfast. A couple of Sinn Féin people I have spoken to are thinking along very similar lines.
That outcome would edge us into a situation where, if the myriad Brexit issues were resolved, the United Kingdom held de jure sovereignty over the disputed territory while sharing de facto administrative authority with Ireland and a local elected and consultative body. A not impossible, or internationally unprecedented, arrangement. However, would the political classes in Britain, with their vague nostalgic longing for an empire restored, go along with such a solution? The current Tory government and its unruly backbenchers in parliament have shown their true light with the controversy over the status of Gibraltar. How would they react to a further dilution of control over the last scrap of Greater England’s first and last colony?
At the moment we seem to be slowly shuffling towards a period of “direct rule” by the British, which may have unforeseen consequences for the unionist minority. Or not. Interesting times ahead.