The more things change, the more they stay the same

In the run-up to the assembly elections in Northern Ireland, Patrick Higgins looks at the current relationship between Sinn Féin and the DUP.


The praise of Martin McGuiness upon his withdrawal from frontline politics from unionists and nationalists alike, along with comments made by Gerry Adams about the advancement of a “new generation” upon the promotion of Michele O’Neill of Sinn Fein made us hope for a less divisive politics in the North.

There was even the suggestion that O’Neill and the leader of the Democratic Unionists Party (DUP), Arlene Foster would become the “chuckle sisters”, just as McGuiness and his DUP counterpart, Reverend Ian Paisley, had been the “chuckle brothers.”

This hope turned to horror as Foster degraded the Irish language as being of no greater relevance than Polish and condemned the Sinn Fein party as a relentless “crocodile” who “will keep coming back for more”. The argument is, if its hunger for an Irish language act (ILA) is satisfied and will inevitably lead to the destruction of unionism in response to a question on the ratification of the act.

Foster has subsequently apologised for appearing culturally insensitive and walked back her comments, however, there is little chance that the comments were intended to be taken any other way that as an expression of cultural insensitivity. For starters nobody has ever used a quote by Winston Churchill and expected to appear reasonable to either Catholics or Nationalists. Secondly, there are enumerable number of ways to reject the ILA without rejecting compromise with Sinn Féin or denigrating the cultural value of the Irish language, a gymnastic feat accomplished by unionists ever since the matter was raised at the St Andrews summit.

A recent factcheck article by the Journal finds little evidence of the DUP or the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) ever agreeing to implement the ILA. Some of the highlights include arguing that the cost would be too high or that the decline of the Irish language in the Republic proves any official recognition would be counterproductive to preserving the Irish language in the North. Indeed, these are the explanations that Foster is now relying upon to justify not implementing the ILA.

“cultural insensitivity”

Foster’s cultural insensitivity cannot be explained as a last ditch effort to cling to power unfortunately. Unionist commentators bemoan Foster’s comments on the Irish language as it takes away from more substantive contents of the DUP electoral platform; however, this content is just as worrying, if not more so. As well as attacking the Irish language, Foster routinely questions the legitimacy of the investigations process into killings during troubles and argues that it disproportionately targets army and police officers.

This is despite the fact that PSNI figures obtained by the BBC show investigations into killings by the army account for only 30% of legacy investigations.  Attacks on the Irish language are one part of a cynical campaign to stoke sectarian tensions.

For all the praise of Martin McGuiness as a peacemaker, unionists are still deeply distrustful of Sinn Féin’s motives, arguing that Sinn Féin is attempting to rewrite their more violent past and that their motives still centre on destroying unionism. This is not to say that this concern is unfounded: Sinn Féin maintain their aspiration for a united Ireland, and periodically call for a border poll on the issue of unification, the most recent attempt coming on the heels of the Brexit vote.

There is also little doubt that Sinn Féin’s insistence on the ILA’s inclusion in the next programme for government was intended as a provocation, as unionists have always maintained that they will not accept its introduction.  Adams’ “see you later alligator” comment and Michele O’Neill’s  rejection of “negativity” are less evidence of deescalating tensions and more the result of the fact they had already succeeded in extracting a visceral reaction from Arlene Foster.

Why politicise?

There remain significant incentives for both Sinn Fein and the DUP to politicise the issue of unification. While the People Before Profit Alliance (PBP) and Green party gained some traction in the last election as alternatives to sectarian politics, there has been little evidence of either party reaching across community divides in a large capacity.

The PBP are also unlikely to survive the next election as a result of a reduction in the number of seats in Stormont from 108 to 90 and their strong pro-Brexit stance.Especially in the case of their seat in West Belfast, where 74% voted against in the Brexit referendum.

The Brexit issue further illustrates the intractability of the conflict as Sinn Féin have chosen to campaign heavily on keeping the North within the EU as an election issue in order to retake seats lost to the PBP in anti-Brexit areas such as West Belfast, despite the fact unionists see EU special status as a threat to their relationship with the United Kingdom.

The renewable heating scandal — where subsidies offered to those who used renewable energy sources were greater than the cost of heating — has led to a great deal of pressure on the DUP from other unionist parties. Among unionists, the performance of ever other party leader bar Michele O’Neill was rated higher than that of Arlene Foster in a recent LucidTalk poll.

Significantly, Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice; a man who has referred to the Good Friday Agreement as “nefarious” and argued that the ultimate goal of the EU is “all-island harmonisation”, is now the most popular party leader among unionists and has increased his popularity among solely DUP voters significantly.

Even if the DUP maintain their status as the largest party after the next election, it is highly unlikely that they will be capable of garnering the 30 MLA’s necessary to file a petition of concern and force a super-majority vote on legislation, a prospect clearly on the minds of the DUP when they proposed scrapping the petition of concern this week.

Foster is in an increasingly vulnerable position, a vulnerability Sinn Féin has capitalised on by suggesting they would refuse to go into government with the DUP after the election is Foster does not step down while the investigation into the renewable heating scandal is ongoing.

This all suggests we will not see the kind of relationship between Michele O’Neill and Arlene Foster that we saw between Martin McGuiness and Reverend Ian Paisley. Northern Ireland elections are notoriously difficult to predict, however, early polls suggest that Sinn Féin and the DUP will remain the two largest parties in Stormont after the next election and prospects for cooperation in the contentious atmosphere created by the renewable heating scandal are worrying to say the least.

Despite unionist praise for Martin McGuiness, it is still in the DUP’s interests to portray Sinn Féin as hell-bent on the destruction of unionism and it is still in the interests of Sinn Fein to provoke the DUP by politicising issues such as the Irish language and Brexit.

It would seem the only hope for the politics of “partnership, equality and mutual respect” envisioned in the Good Friday Agreement is the UUP and SDLP, who have recently agreed on a transfer agreement to ensure both parties remain viable despite a reduction in seats in the next election.

It is unlikely these parties will gain enough seats to band together with the Alliance party and form a government, however, if they can continue to cooperate in opposition and there is no return to direct rule, there is at least the possibility that Northern Ireland could form a government unhindered by tribal politics in the future.

For now at least, it seems the more things change the more they stay the same.