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The DUP's inflexibility could see Sinn Féin hardliners fill vacuum

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From left, Sinn Féin TDs Louise O’Reilly and Pat Buckley, Deputy Leader Mary Lou McDonald, and party Finance Spokesperson Pearse Doherty speak to reporters at Leinster House yesterday. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

From left, Sinn Féin TDs Louise O’Reilly and Pat Buckley, Deputy Leader Mary Lou McDonald, and party Finance Spokesperson Pearse Doherty speak to reporters at Leinster House yesterday. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney

From left, Sinn Féin TDs Louise O’Reilly and Pat Buckley, Deputy Leader Mary Lou McDonald, and party Finance Spokesperson Pearse Doherty speak to reporters at Leinster House yesterday. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

To paraphrase Alex Ferguson, "politics, bloody hell". Just over a year ago, there was heady talk in Sinn Féin of the party being in government on both sides of a border rendered almost irrelevant by the single market.

Now it is facing into 2017 with a very real prospect of direct Westminster rule in the North for the remainder of the year; the party somewhat marginalised in the South and the possible re-emergence of a hard border not seen since the dark days of the Troubles.

And, as if that wasn't enough to be getting on with, the Gerry Adams/Martin McGuinness double act that has dominated the republican movement for four decades is surely reaching the end of the political road.

Even those who had seen Mr McGuinness relatively recently have been shocked by how unwell he has looked in recent days. The hope, of course, is that his health improves. However, even in the unlikely event of Sinn Féin and the DUP managing to reach a deal on power sharing, he'll hardly be back again as deputy first minister.

Given the way politics work, if Mr McGuinness goes, Mr Adams is likely to follow, even if the word is that he hasn't come around to that way of thinking just yet.

A generational change is unquestionably coming soon. It would be a mistake to overstate any dissent within Sinn Féin. Both Mr McGuinness and Mr Adams are still regarded in the movement in the same way that ANC members revered Nelson Mandela.

But there have been grumblings about Mr McGuinness being too accommodating towards the DUP in the North. There are also reformists in the South who would quietly like to see Mr Adams replaced by Mary Lou McDonald, with the party adopting a more social democratic hue.

The odds of that happening in 2017 have got shorter in the last 48 hours. And that must be unnerving for the Belfast strategists who still largely call the shots in the party. Many in the media here simplistically regard Mr Adams as an electoral liability and believe replacing him with Ms McDonald would have the magic wand effect of instantly improving the party's electoral fortunes.

However, that underestimates the potential negative fallout within the organisation from losing the party's father figure. Mr Adams, particularly in tandem with Mr McGuinness, embodies Sinn Féin and has done so since the mid-1980s.

Who knows how the legendary cohesion and unity will be affected when they go?

Just as worrying for them, surely, is the uncertainty about where the party is going both North and South. Of course, any Assembly elections will only confirm the DUP and Sinn Féin's positions as leaders of unionism and nationalism respectively (though the DUP in particular may lose seats). But it's difficult to see how any administration can be put together given the gulf between those two parties.

The continuing re-emergence of Fianna Fáil in the South must be just as disconcerting for Sinn Féin. That wasn't in the script this time last year. Nor was Fianna Fáil's refusal to play ball with the media's baying for an FG-FF coalition after the election. Fianna Fáil is proving a far tougher nut to crack than an exhausted SDLP in the 1990s. And Micheál Martin's strategy of keeping a foot on both sides of the Dáil chamber has largely neutralised Sinn Féin's big guns of Ms McDonald, Pearse Doherty and Éoin Ó Broin.

Republicans pride themselves on always playing the long game - "Tiocfaidh ár lá" and all that. But that has its limitations. Close Sinn Féin watchers have picked up a definite shift in the party's attitude towards coalition in recent months and now believe it would be open to doing a deal after the next election to get into government, even as a minority partner.

It's not all bad news for Sinn Féin. For once, the Assembly has collapsed and it can't be held to blame.

Over the past decade, Mr McGuinness has consistently tried to make Stormont work, hugely successfully (and improbably) with Ian Paisley and reasonably so with Peter Robinson.

But Arlene Foster has been something of a throw-back to intransigent unionist leaders of yesteryear. The estrangement between the two has been obvious for some time - going beyond the 'cash-for-ash' scandal. And even Mrs Foster's strongest supporters would struggle to counter Mr McGuinness's criticism of her refusal to "exhibit any humility".

It's clear Mr McGuinness's instincts would have been to stick with the administration, but that proved impossible. We'll never know how much of it was his call and how much was him bowing to internal Sinn Féin pressure.

The suspicion is that it was more of the latter. Either way, it's pretty obvious that whoever the party puts forward for the role of deputy first minister won't allow him or herself be put in that position again. Expect a much harder line with the DUP from Sinn Féin from here on in. It's hard to blame the party for that - Mr McGuinness's softly, softly partnership approach hasn't been reciprocated. But it doesn't augur well for the immediate future of power sharing.

The fear, of course, is that any vacuum will be seized upon by those with dark intentions. The belief must be that the peace process is far too embedded at this point to allow such views to prosper. However, apart from that, it's hard to find grounds for solace in the current crisis. Clearly, so much has changed since 1998, but depressingly so much also remains the same.

The next generation of the DUP leadership has, counter-intuitively, proven more inflexible and immovable than its predecessors. With Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness close to passing on the baton, the worry must be that the same will happen in Sinn Féin. With a resulting impact on relations with the DUP. What started out as the 'Chuckle Brothers' may yet end up as the bare-knuckle brothers.

Shane Coleman presents 'Newstalk Breakfast', weekdays from 7am

Irish Independent