Ruth Dudley Edwards: When in trouble, the party just stages another crisis
Sinn Fein's many problems include the partitionist voters in the Republic, says Ruth Dudley Edwards
My guess is that on Tuesday morning, as David Cameron read the contents of his red box, he groaned at the briefing from the Northern Ireland Office, scribbled "Not another penny: the English won't stand for it'" and went back to focusing on ISIS, the economy and the forthcoming general election.
Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers, who is a detail woman, will meanwhile have been trying to grasp what this new crisis was all about. She'll have re-read Martin McGuinness's triumphalist speech at the Ard Fheis, explaining that Sinn Fein had secured a Northern Ireland welfare system that was better than that in Britain: "Let our opponents in the north and the south reflect on these very real achievements when, in their desperation, they attempt to blame us for Tory cuts which are beyond our control."
She'll have gone back a month or so - for she is thorough - to read again his denunciations of the wickedness of the SDLP and the UUP in producing amendments to the Welfare Bill. How clearly it was put in the article he'd put his name to in the Belfast Telegraph. "Why did neither the SDLP nor the UUP raise these amendments at the Executive?" it asked, before coming to a damning conclusion. "They did this because they were never interested in agreed amendments, only in scoring political points. In order to achieve that, they were prepared, not only to renege on agreements and commitments, but to jeopardise the entire agreement itself."
And now this! Sinn Fein was putting down a petition of concern to block the DUP/SF welfare bill from going through Assembly.
Imagine the scene when Ms Villiers summoned her civil servants.
"Why are Sinn Fein telling lies? They've said the de al was supposed to stop anyone being worse off as a result of welfare reform? How could it? All the other budgets are already cut to the bone. There just isn't the money."
She waved a copy of the Stormont House Agreement. "I've checked. Nowhere here does it say that no benefit claimants will lose money."
"Indeed, Secretary of State. But the Deputy First Minister might now have, let us say, political considerations to take into account."
"But damn it," she said, for she was very upset, "McGuinness sounded positively statesmanlike when he denounced the SDLP for being prepared to risk the collapse of the Stormont House Agreement for the sake of party political grandstanding? Didn't he mean it?" She checked the date on her watch. "And anyway, aren't he and Robinson off to America looking for investment and selfies with Obama? And why would Sinn Fein suddenly announce this volte face on Monday when there had been no hint of it at the party shindig?"
And then the weary mandarin whose misfortune it is to be the NIO's Shinnerologist, explained that the word from the Ard Fheis was that the vast majority of those present didn't give a damn about Northern Ireland, but were fuming off-camera because on the doorsteps and in the advice centres people were accusing the party of implementing austerity in the north while opposing it in the south and the left are shouting it from the rooftops.
"But couldn't they have waited a few days and worked out some fudge with the DUP. The Irish election isn't till next year, is it?"
"There's the strike on Friday," said another official."
"I was coming to that," said the Shinnerologist. "They're courting the unions in the south. They even had one speaking at their party conference. And now they're faced with union ads saying "No one voted for our elected politicians to do a deal like this."
"So they realised that since the strike is against austerity measures from the Northern Ireland government, they had to switch sides."
He sighed. "Temporarily, we hope."
"Can they get away with it? Electorally, I mean."
He shrugged. "They usually do. And there's the bonus of wrong-footing the SDLP by elbowing them aside and taking the lead over the petition of concern."
"The sex stuff," prompted a junior minion.
Ms Villiers clutched her forehead. "The sex stuff?"
"I was coming to that, Secretary of State. There's a Spotlight programme tonight featuring another victim of sex abuse by an IRA man which Sinn Fein apparently covered up. They'll be caught again just like with Mairia Cahill. For PC reasons they feel obliged to say they believe anyone who says they've been raped. Which is a bit awkward when they then deny everything else they've said."
She looked down at the briefing documents scattered wildly around her usually immaculately tidy desk. "I see Peter Robinson says the Sinn Fein statement is the most dishonourable, ham-fisted one he's ever seen, so presumably the American trip is off."
"Oh, no, Secretary of State. I don't think so. It'll probably be curtailed, but they'll go off glowering at each other and come back saying they've had useful discussions and that there may be a way forward."
"Don't tell me. It'll revolve around us giving them another few hundred million."
"It always does."
"I'll have to see what the PM thinks," said Ms Villiers.