Murder On The Hill

August 20, 2014 — Leave a comment

It feels like the build-up in an Agatha Christie plot: Stormont is poised to be murdered and the list of suspects with motives is long.

Will it be Sinn Fein with their dogged refusal to implement the welfare cuts dictated by Westminster that choke the devolved institution of life?

Will the DUP stand accused for their failure to govern collectively and the constant drip of sectarian poison they have fed into the veins of the body politic?

Will the Orange Order take centre stage, with loyalist paramilitary help, as the ones who fire the fatal shot in revenge for betrayal over parading?

Could Secretary of State Theresa Villiers inadvertently kill the victim by blowing up the parades decision-making process and watching Stormont collapse as part of the collateral damage?

Or might Enda Kenny and his government face the charge of killing by neglect?

Gerry Adams says the political process faces its biggest challenge since the Good Friday negotiations in 1998. He’s been known to talk up a crisis before, perhaps that’s why he has to put this one on a scale. Relatively speaking, he’s saying this is a big one. He’s also saying that it won’t be fixed because unionists won’t want to deal.

“We are moving into another election cycle with the Westminster elections next May and Assembly elections the following year.
“Elections invariably see unionist leaders adopt ever more strident language and an unwillingness to find solutions to difficulties.”
And he’s keen to remind everyone that Sinn Fein isn’t wedded to Stormont: “As Martin McGuinness has noted ‘We are in government with unionists because we want to be. They are in government with us because they have to be.”
It would be wrong, if understandable, to dismiss this latest statement from Adams as just another piece of political gamesmanship.
Sinn Fein knows there will soon be white chalk marking the spot where their 2007 deal with the DUP died. Gerry Adams is merely ensuring that it’s not just his fingerprints left at the scene.
The DUP has begun to recognise this eventuality too. Perhaps even game plan for it. At the start of the summer Peter Robinson warned that the institutions had been put under threat by a Parades Commission decision. This week his Finance Minister Simon Hamilton warned that the threat to government comes from Sinn Fein’s unwillingness to face the reality of welfare cuts and the swingeing Westminster fines that will follow.

The DUP knows Sinn Fein won’t compromise on welfare. They know because they previously thought they had a deal in the bag until, it seems, Gerry Adams over-ruled Martin McGuinness and his northern negotiators.
They know that Sinn Fein is focussed on its progress south of the border where it cannot be seen to be a party that cuts welfare. They also know that the kind of budget cuts that will have to be imposed elsewhere as a result this stalemate cannot be agreed and will bring the house down.
So, if collapse is inevitable, they’re wondering if they can squeeze any major concessions out of the Northern Ireland Office before it comes – notably on parades.
But what’s the incentive for Theresa Villiers to get involved? So far, she’s played a stalling game – not rejecting the unionist demand for an inquiry into the disputed Parades Commission decision, and buying time over the heated summer months. But can she do anything more?
She must surely know that any intervention that second-guesses the work of the Commission will finish it and take Stormont down too while handing the poison chalice of parades back to the police.
So, it remains highly unlikely that Villiers will be able to satisfy unionist demands. If collapse is inevitable, the one thing she’ll be desperate to avoid is anything that does serious damage to the fragile consensus on policing.
Meanwhile the Irish Government stands accused, mostly by Sinn Fein, of failing to engage proactively and of allowing matters to drift.
It’s a charge that infuriates politicians and civil servants in Dublin. They see the stalemate at Stormont as clearly as anyone else, but they are powerless to intervene. The point about the Good Friday Agreement and its St Andrews successor was that parties in Northern Ireland would now be left to sort things out amongst themselves.
It’s an example of how bad things have got that both unionist and republican camps are now each seeking unilateral help from mummy and daddy in the British and Irish governments.
The first joint act of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness when they took office was to evict the British Secretary of State from his. They publicly announced that Peter Hain was being kicked out of Stormont Castle and they were moving in.
It was nice piece of theatre and signalled that they were prepared to go further than the previous incumbents – Mallon and Trimble. This, they were saying, is the new partnership that will get things done.
How different it all seems today. The Chuckle Brothers have become The Brothers Grimm. Nothing is getting done and it appears the keys of castle will soon be handed back to its former owner.
It’s not just that collapse has become inevitable, it’s also that all sides appear to want it – even if they’re not explicitly saying so. There are short and medium-term tactical advantages for both the DUP and Sinn Fein.
Westminster elections next year can be fought with the traditional war cry of “No Surrender” while Sinn Fein can fight elections in the South without that taint of welfare cuts.
Collapse would also draw a reluctant Dublin government into a process which elevates its electoral rivals Sinn Fein to equal negotiators. It would equally blunt the ability of southern parties to attack Sinn Fein on northern issues in the midst of delicate moves to restore devolution.
So, Stormont is a dead institution walking. Who kills it will quickly become irrelevant. It’s how to revive it that will become the more pressing question.

(This piece first appeared in the Sunday Business Post on August 17th 2014)

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