Wednesday 17 July 2019

Shakespearean tragedy ends with an election that nobody in the North wants

Martin McGuinness with Gerry Adams leaving No.10 Downing Street in 1999 Picture: PA/Peter Jordan
Martin McGuinness with Gerry Adams leaving No.10 Downing Street in 1999 Picture: PA/Peter Jordan

Tom Kelly

There's a familiarity to politics in Northern Ireland and it's called 'crisis'.

Listening to outgoing Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness defiantly - and with some vulnerability - announce his resignation from office, I recalled the resignation of another deputy first minister, Seamus Mallon, in July 1999.

In his opening remarks, Mallon reminded the Assembly of the pledges he affirmed when taking office "to work in good faith to bring into being the arrangements set out in the Good Friday Agreement and his commitment to observe the spirit of his pledge of office". Mallon felt that both Sinn Féin and the then Ulster Unionist party were ripping the heart out of the Good Friday Agreement over decommissioning. He felt that efforts to resolve the then impasse were not only being spurned but 'scorned' by some in unionism.

Yesterday Martin McGuinness, like Mallon, ran out of patience, this time because of the scornful attitude of his DUP Executive partners towards nationalism, Irish identity and the wider issues of equality within Northern society. It is very clear from his resignation letter that the RHI scheme - better known as 'cash for ash' - was only a tipping point, as Sinn Féin has clearly been festering for quite a while.

Bizarrely, Mr McGuinness admits in his resignation letter that the equality agenda and the commitments under the Good Friday Agreement were for the past 10 years being eroded by the DUP, conveniently forgetting that whatever there is about his personal relationships with Ms Foster's predecessors, this erosion happened on his watch as deputy first minister.

The reality is that the RHI scheme and its subsequent handling by Ms Foster and her advisors was recoverable until a series of kamikaze media interviews and a display of bullish bravado to an empty Assembly forced the hand of Sinn Féin into a point of no return. Added to that was the belligerence of the DUP leader when she accused the Sinn Féin leadership of "playing a game of chicken".

Playground stuff, yes, but we know that very few children ever recoil from playing chicken - no matter what the danger to others or themselves. The hapless justice minister Claire Sudgen was about as purposeful during this crisis as an ashtray on a motorbike. Totally out of her depth, she floundered when she should have found her voice.

It is very clear that the absence of the minority parties from the Executive has caused considerable discomfort within the DUP and particularly within Sinn Féin. With the UUP and SDLP now firmly on the opposition benches when 'the proverbial' now hits a ministerial fan, there is no hiding place for Executive ministers. Nor is there a convenient whipping boy in the shape of Mark H Durkan or Danny Kennedy.

The near hysterical reaction of the DUP to the UUP or SDLP leadership criticisms of the RHI debacle is both hypocritical and hilarious - what did they think those parties would do when it was a high-ranking DUP member who first lobbed this grenade into the public domain?

The past few weeks has been played out like some Shakespearean tragedy and it has resulted in an election that no one really wants. So, what next? Well the aptly named, James Brokenshire, the undercover Secretary of State, now oversees a truly broken statelet.

The cosy détente between his conservative government (so ably cultivated by his predecessor, Theresa Villiers during the EU referendum) and the DUP is one of the reasons for Sinn Féin's estrangement from the current political process.

He now must manage Brexit against the wishes of the majority in Northern Ireland - alongside a deeply divided and damaged institution at Stormont.

The opposition will not be looking forward to a forthcoming election because their resources are heavily depleted and the workings of an effective partnership between the UUP and SDLP leadership have not been properly rooted.

Last year, the DUP mortgaged its soul on 'Project Arlene' and it paid off handsomely, but in this next Assembly election, there will be fewer seats for everyone and that includes the DUP.

The DUP will interpret the election as a rallying call to limit Sinn Féin's aspirations and Sinn Féin will see this as a chance to put manners on the DUP.

Voter apathy could defeat both ambitions.

As Seamus Mallon pointed out in 1999 - 'scorn' is not a tradeable commodity in the politics of compromise. So, two weeks into 2017 and its déjà vu for those pesky slow learners once more.

Tom Kelly is a political commentator

Irish Independent

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