By Kevin Meagher
The Westminster term may have ended, but the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the aptly-named James Brokenshire, still needs to perform the political equivalent of CPR to restart power-sharing before normal political service resumes in September.
A tall order following the collapse of the Executive earlier this year in the wake of the Renewable Heat Incentive fiasco – the botched commercial energy subsidy Arlene Foster introduced when she was enterprise minister and which is set to rack-up a £500 million liability because of a lack of cost controls.
Her defiant refusal to stand aside as First Minister triggered the resignation of Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister, ushering in fresh elections to the 90-seat assembly where Sinn Fein came within a whisker of supplanting the DUP as the largest party.
Six months on, the situation remains unresolved. Deadlines come and go – a situation not helped by McGuinness’ untimely death and an unexpected general election result which has pockmarked attempts at dialogue.
For Sinn Fein, the DUP’s response to the RHI scandal is symptomatic of its entire approach to politics: arrogant, self-pitying and utterly tone-deaf when it comes to the niceties required for power-sharing to succeed. McGuinness’ resignation letter spoke of his "deep personal frustration" with the DUP’s foot-dragging around cultural and equality issues and "shameful disrespect" towards nationalists and minorities.
Matters are not helped by the DUP’s pact with the Conservatives. The £1 billion funding package agreed with the Tories last month, in return for the DUP's ten Westminster votes, was not conditional on a restoration of power-sharing.
This has meant the best chance of strong-arming unionists into a compromise with Sinn Fein has been squandered. At a stroke, Brokenshire has forfeited his obvious leverage. More accurately, he has had it forfeited for him. A loyal factotum of the Prime Minister, there is little sense the Northern Ireland Secretary is driving events.
That’s part of the problem: Brokenshire is always trying to solve the last problem, rather than avoiding the next one.
Last week there was speculation he was actually trying to row back and retro-fit a condition that the funding package should be contingent on reviving the executive. Too little too late. Still, he has some moves he can make if he is prepared to take the initiative. After all, the sticking points are well-established.
Sinn Fein wants an Irish language act, a measure so radical that Wales enacted similar legislation a quarter of a century ago. It’s actually rather astonishing that such a modest proposal is so contentious, especially when the Good Friday Agreement is explicit about recognising the equality of Irish identity.
For the DUP, though, this is all part of a republican ‘culture war’ to make Northern Ireland less British. Ostensibly, they oppose the measure on grounds of cost, but the sectarianism of their supporters sees any ‘victory’ for Sinn Fein coming at their expense and don’t want to risk upsetting grassroots supporters who may drift to the even more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party led by Jim Allister, who makes Arlene Foster look like Caroline Lucas.
Latterly, the DUP have tried to argue that Irish should be lumped together with Ulster-Scots as a compromise. However the point is that nationalists (not just Sinn Fein) want Irish to be equivalent to English. In contrast, Ulster-Scots is merely a dialect. Moreover, a High Court ruling in March found the executive had failed in its duty to have an Irish language strategy, emboldening Sinn Fein which maintains that previous agreements guaranteed an act would be implemented.
The other major stumbling block is in relation to extending same-sex marriage proposals to Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein is explicitly in favour while the DUP will die in a ditch opposing it. It may seem slightly ironic to have unionists opposing a measure that applies in all other jurisdictions of the ‘mother’ country, but the DUP’s evangelical grassroots will have none of it.
It’s also an interesting wedge issue, positioning Sinn Fein as modernisers with a commitment to ‘equality’ against the ‘reactionary’ DUP. It will be interesting to see if such a move helps with Sinn Fein’s crossover appeal. Will LGBT Protestants see the Shinners fighting for their rights against the ‘bigoted’ DUP?
Brokenshire is at least right that the ‘gaps’ he repeatedly refers to between the parties are surmountable. They have to be. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein need a deal. For unionists, being seen as the tail wagging the Conservative dog is not helpful for either party, playing straight into the hands of critics who accuse Theresa May and Arlene Foster of elevating party advantage over the interests of the Northern Ireland political process.
For Sinn Fein, restoration of power sharing is a staging post to a united Ireland. As Gerry Adams conceded last month: "The way forward is not to be in a vacuum, to have stagnation, the way forward is to have that forum [the Executive] working on the basis on which it should have been established."
Republicans will be wary of being perceived as a ‘problem’ by southern Irish voters. As the third largest party in the Dail, Sinn Fein is in pole position to form a coalition with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael if the electoral arithmetic stacks up following the next Irish general election. Being seen to make things work in the North is critical to that.
It remains likely that a deal will be done in coming weeks but, as ever, this would merely represent the beginning of a new tumultuous phase. Dealing with the legacy of the Troubles is even more arduous than unpicking the current disputes, while the independent RHI inquiry, under retired judge Sir Patrick Coughlin, is set to backload the political pain for Arlene Foster when it finally reports.
For Brokenshire, his best bet remains to push the DUP to concede on the Irish language question. He should offer cash to cover the implementation costs while offering more for Ulster-Scots culture (but not pallets for July 12thbonfires) in a ‘something for something’ deal. He should also use the High Court ruling as a reality check for unionism, explaining that an Irish language act cannot be fudged any longer.
At the same time, he needs to recognise that extending same-sex marriage proposals could badly destabilise the DUP. Equality campaigners will not like that trade-off and they may well win in the long-term, but contemporary unionism is simply not able to digest both concessions. There are signs of movement on the Irish language question, which would placate Sinn Fein and allow a restoration of power-sharing, so this is where Brokenshire should focus his energies.
Kevin Meagher is author of ‘A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about’, published by Biteback