Although talks between Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire and the five main Assembly parties are due to begin on Monday, there is little optimism that they will lead to a resurrection of the Executive.
A tweet from Michelle O’Neill on Saturday proposed that any “talks be focused and time limited,” but anyone seeking to divine a positive element in that would have had to weigh it against the increasingly cold relations between Sinn Féin and the DUP.
Arlene Foster had rejected the demand for an Irish Language Act, but promised that the issue, and others like gay marriage, would be addressed in a “time limited period” if the Executive is revived. O’Neill’s use of the same phrase could be taken as an ironical dismissal of the offer.
A more formal Sinn Féin response to the DUP accused it of failing to “embrace the principles at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement, of equality, of mutual respect and of parity of esteem.” They specifically referred to marriage, language, economic and cultural rights.
While it is true that the GFA referred to “equality of civil, political, social and cultural rights,” that was clearly in the context of “equal opportunity,” generally understood as equality before the law, rather than a more radical interpretation that implies some nebulous concept of absolute egalitarianism. It was more John Locke than Pol Pot.
The other problem with that is that while Sinn Féin has substituted the nominal pursuit of “equality” as a cover for its effective acceptance of Partition and the subservience of Irish sovereignty to London and now Brussels, its record in the Executive since 2007 belies its claim to be a radical egalitarian party in the traditional socialist sense.
Equality is now defined no differently than it is among liberals on the “left” of the American Democratic Party, to mean the privileging of sectional rights for separate, and indeed often competing, identity groups rather than the notion of a commons as traditionally understood by the republican and socialist left.
There is a scene in one of the episodes of West Wing which encapsulates the attitude of many such liberals. Toby and Josh, who get all emotional about gay rights, and abortion and prayer in school, sneer at the suggestion that the White House might support workers who were objecting to an undermining of their employment conditions.
Similarly, Sinn Féin whilst trumpeting the virtues of “equality,” agreed in the Stormont House deal of December 2014 to reducing public sector employment by 20,000, reducing public service wages, cuts to education and health, and the sale of public assets including Belfast Harbour. The total cost of the budget and welfare cuts amounted to £1.5 billion. Indeed they had already, in coalition with the DUP, presided over cuts of £3,7 billion.
While the leadership was able to get the agreement approved by a docile Ard Comhairle, they had under-estimated the reaction of wider society, including a significant proportion of its own support base. They were forced to back track in the face of trade union mobilisation and further talks were required to keep the Stormont Aspidistra flying.
They were successful, and in November 2015 Sinn Féin signed up to an even worse deal than that which they had allegedly decided to reject when their hand was forced in March. It was clear in fact that Sinn Féin had hoped that they could engage in some gesture politics and smoke and mirrors to conceal their desire to get back into “power.” They had also secured a formal agreement to cut corporation tax to 12.5% by April 2018. Some even justified this on the basis of creating “equality” with the 26 counties. Clearly “equality” can mean whatever you wish it to mean.
As part of the “Fresh Start” agreement which revived the Executive, Sinn Féin also agreed to ‘benchmarking’ for teachers and health service workers. It is a mechanism used to allegedly link public sector pay to performance, and is key to reducing the public sector wage bill.
Curiously, the Shinners were vehemently opposed to the introduction of benchmarking for public sector workers in the south. At the 2013 Ard Fheis Mary Lou McDonald attacked the Croke Park agreement which embodied benchmarking as a threat from the government: “Take this deal or we’ll really hurt you.”
Then again they were also opposed to welfare cuts, privatization, sacking public servants, and cuts to the education and health services. Austerity in Dundalk bad. Austerity in Dungannon good. Apparently.
Sinn Féin’s acceptance of austerity in the six counties since 2007 has clearly not changed. All of the key “red line” issues in their demands on the DUP since the Executive collapsed last January have been to do with “cultural rights.”
There is also the possibility of course that they deliberately put up front the demands for symbolic language legislation and gay marriage in the certain knowledge that the DUP would reject them. That would serve two purposes; firstly to consolidate Sinn Féin’s position as the primary representative of the Catholic nationalist population, even though hardly any of them actually speak Irish, and secondly to allow them to focus on their attempt to become part of a coalition in the south after the next general election which they and others seem convinced will be next Spring.
So, the intervention of Brokenshire is unlikely to bring the Chuckle Siblings back together. Both have arguably bigger fish to fry. The DUP has the enhanced bargaining power emanating from their deal with the Tories. Sinn Féin wants to be in coalition in Dublin. They have already begun softening up the membership.
London might threaten to cut off funding for the northern parties, but the DUP has as much interest in maintaining that as the Shinners, and is in a position to ensure that. Besides, the Brits are unlikely to want to further exacerbate the situation by taking away the trough.
Matt Treacy’s book A Tunnel to the Moon: The End of the Irish Republican Army is currently available on: