Posted by Jim on November 10, 2017
If the then First Minister had agreed to stand aside for a week or two…I’m pretty sure she would still be First Minister today. … The Assembly and Executive wouldn’t have collapsed. There would have been no throwaway lines about crocodiles and Sinn Féin wouldn’t have been able to galvanize and mobilize an angry Republican/Nationalist electorate.
Alex Kane. Irish News. Belfast. Friday, November 10, 2017
I was reading Lilah-Liberty For Want of a Nail the other night. You know the one: ‘For want of a nail the shoe was lost’, followed by the horse, the rider, the message, the battle and the kingdom itself…’ And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.’
When I reached the end and kissed her goodnight, I suddenly thought of Arlene Foster.
If the then First Minister had agreed to stand aside for a week or two (as Peter Robinson would probably have done; or, at least, have found a way of resolving the standoff) and allowed an initial inquiry to rummage through the BBC Spotlight allegations, I’m pretty sure she would still be First Minister today.
The Assembly and Executive wouldn’t have collapsed. There would have been no throwaway lines about crocodiles and Sinn Féin wouldn’t have been able to galvanize and mobilize an angry Republican/Nationalist electorate. There wouldn’t have been an early election and Unionists would still have an overall majority; with the DUP still able to wield the petition of concern on any and every issue. Northern Ireland wouldn’t be as polarized and unsettled as it has become.
There wouldn’t have been 10 months of impasse. Mike Nesbitt would still be leader of the UUP. It’s possible, in the absence of the increasingly toxic relationship between Unionists and Republicans before and after the Assembly election, that the UUP and SDLP wouldn’t have lost all their parliamentary seats in June. The political debate would not have been dominated by Sinn Féin’s ‘rights’ agenda; and the Irish language issue wouldn’t really be registering as a make-or-break problem.
We wouldn’t be facing a long period of direct rule. Public confidence in the assembly wouldn’t be at its lowest ever ebb. And, ‘Is the assembly actually worth preserving?’ wouldn’t have become the most asked question in pubs, at water coolers and across dining tables.
All of this mess because Arlene Foster wouldn’t step aside. There could, of course, be more mess to come. If Sinn Féin remains of the opinion that James Brokenshire’s decision to legislate for a budget means – as John O’Dowd said on last week’s The View – “this present process is over”, then it could take a while before another talks process is established. And if that is the case, then it’s a pretty sure bet that Sinn Féin won’t be in the mood for compromises from their side.
Similarly, Unionism generally and the DUP in particular isn’t going to be happy if Foster’s stubbornness (some call it pride) leads to the collapse of devolution. They may not love power sharing with Sinn Féin, but they also know that direct rule has rarely done any favours for Unionism. They know, too, that the deal the DUP has with Theresa May does not carry any guarantee that her government – assuming, of course, she hangs on – would take sides with them against Sinn Féin and risk the implosion of the entire political/institutional process. And while Foster will be keen to boast of the importance of the DUP in the Commons at the moment (expect at least one big name at their annual conference in a few weeks), she won’t want to tell her party that she has crashed Stormont.
So yes, her refusal to stand aside led to a veritable avalanche of unexpected, unintended consequences. But – and it’s an important but – I suspect that those consequences were coming down the line at some point, anyway. The sheer despair and anger in Martin McGuinness’s resignation letter last January (the one in which he finally blew the lid on the nature of the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin) wasn’t actually anything new. Some of us had been writing about it for years. But its publication blew away the manufactured, self-serving fiction that “we actually get on very well together”.
In essence, all her refusal to stand aside for a while did was hasten the point at which we all begin to accept that the present process cannot work. We have tested, tested again and then retested the process since 1998; yet every attempt ends in a new crisis and a mountain of fudge. Sinn Féin was clearly uncomfortable with Foster. RHI provided the opportunity to embarrass her and the competence of her colleagues and advisers. Her refusal to stand aside (and they couldn’t take it for granted that she wouldn’t) gave them an unexpected opportunity to up the ante, bring down the Executive and push their own agenda.
We are where we are. We are where we were always going to be.
All the pretences and sleights-of-hand and cosmetics have been rendered worthless. We’re back at base camp, with the unclimbed mountain still there; still unconquered.
As I keep saying, politics here is heading to a very, very bad place.