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6 March 2017

Northern Ireland elections: more polarisation

Worse still, the British government will have little psychic space for dealing with the troublesome province during the Brexit process

Sinn Feinís Michelle OíNeill , Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams at a post-election press conference
Sinn Feinís Michelle OíNeill , Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams at a post-election press conference ©Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images

Last Thursday’s election to the Northern Ireland Assembly was a triumph for Sinn Fein, which achieved its best result ever. It was a near-disaster for unionism. Sinn Fein’s share of the vote went up by 3.9 per cent as the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP’s) went down by 1.1 per cent.

The BBC kept telling us that the election was called as a Sinn Fein protest against the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal. That was misleading. The real cause was amyloidosis, the serious illness that forced the resignation of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

Although as hard a man as his comrade-in arms Gerry Adams, with whom he ran the IRA for many years, McGuinness is cleverer, wiser and never lets his ego get in the way of doing his job. Adams, who has been president of Sinn Fein for 34 years, resigned as MP for West Belfast in 2010 and successfully stood for election to Dail Eireann where he took over leadership of his parliamentary party. He is cordially loathed for his vanity and self-righteousness by almost all politicians outside his own subservient ranks.

It was McGuinness’s diplomatic skills that enabled him in 2007—when the Northern Ireland Executive was restored after a suspension of five years—to form a good working relationship with First Minister the Reverend Ian Paisley, the rabble-rousing Protestant bigot whose critics had for decades described him as the IRA’s best recruiting sergeant. His DUP had displaced the moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) just as Sinn Fein had displaced the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

Although Sinn Fein want to destroy Northern Ireland, to impress southern electors it needed to be seen as constructive. McGuinness and Paisley became so friendly they were nicknamed the Chuckle Brothers. But while Peter Robinson, who took over from Paisley in 2011, kept his distance, he and his deputy had an efficient business partnership, which worked because it suited both parties to split power rather than share it and to cut each other some slack when there were embarrassments. It was more difficult for Arlene Foster, who took over early in 2016. Not only had the IRA bombed her school bus but its local assassin—whom McGuinness would eulogise at his funeral—had shot and wounded her policeman father. Still, she and McGuinness managed to be civil to each other.

Foster, who has the common touch, substantially improved her party’s vote in last year’s general election, but having endured much misogyny in her political life she showed herself unduly determined to be more macho than the men. In November, journalists revealed the farce of what became known as “Cash for Ash.” Because the Northern Irish RHI scheme did not have the cost controls that operated in the rest of the UK, those converting their heating systems to wood-burning were paid £1.60 for every £1 they spent: unscrupulous beneficiaries were merrily running boilers round the clock in otherwise empty sheds. The estimated costs to the Exchequer of this—at best gross incompetence by both politicians and civil servants—are close to £500m.

Having been the minister in charge when RHI was brought in, Foster was the first—though by no means the only—person in the firing line, but instead of taking responsibility, showing contrition and offering to stand aside while there was a quick inquiry, she decided to tough it out and blame everyone else. Simultaneously, the revelation that McGuinness was seriously ill threw the Sinn Fein leadership into turmoil, for it was McGuinness, idolised by republicans, who had been able to keep the hard men on board even though they feared the united Ireland they had killed for was as far away as ever.

So once it was clear McGuinness would have to resign, he and Adams decided to seize the opportunity to galvanise the troops by forcing an ethnic drum-beating election over RHI. McGuinness resigned and refused to nominate a successor as deputy First Minister, which brought down the Executive, he and Adams chose as the new party leader the malleable Michelle O’Neill, and Adams became the frontman of the election campaign. He is adept at getting under the skin of unionists and succeeded in goading Foster into negativity and fear-mongering, in the course of which she so enraged nationalists that before the election, the DUP had ten more seats than Sinn Fein: they are now just one ahead. And the UUP, which had had the same number of seats as the SDLP, now has ten to their 12. Truly, Gerry Adams is entitled to crow that “the notion of a permanent or perpetual unionist majority has been demolished.”

As Sinn Fein refuse to go back into power with the DUP while Foster remains, she becomes ever more obdurate. There is very little on which the parties agree, since in addition to being at constitutional loggerheads, the DUP is conservative while these days Sinn Fein is left-wing and socially progressive.

If the parties fail to do a deal, James Brokenshire, the unfortunate Secretary of State, will be required in three weeks to call another election and, if there is another deadlock, to bring in direct rule.

Northern Ireland is now more polarised than ever. The British and Irish governments are both focussed on Brexit and have little psychic space for dealing with the troublesome province. With both Adams and Foster in the driving seats of their parties, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards