If history is much guide, the most likely prospect for Northern Ireland’s politics in the short term is drift.
While the recent history of the power sharing executive has been mostly stable and successful – including the unlikely partnership between the now departed Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness, the hard men of both communities in their time – the prior history of the province up to and including the Troubles has been of one failed political initiative after another, and a lot of waiting around and talking.
Almost a century after its formation as the part of Ireland retained by the British after the rest of the island won its independence, Northern Ireland enjoys a greater degree of popular consensus about its constitutional arrangements than ever before. That is what is now being jeopardised by the row between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party.
Another round of elections beckons, which will most likely solve nothing and simply be a mildly stimulating interlude before a return to drift. No side, and least of all the Secretary of State himself, James Brokenshire, actively wishes to see a return to direct rule from Westminster. From that, and the prospect of a “hard border” with the South, some fear that the dying embers of violence could start to flare up. Drift is preferable to that, for all concerned.
In this particular standoff, it is unionism that has the most to lose. Another round of elections could see Sinn Fein edge ahead to first place in the elections, and thus have a claim to the role of First Minister. Although there can be no First Minister without a Deputy – it is more of a co-chair than a traditional hierarchical constitutional pairing – the symbolism and the humiliation of the once dominant Unionist tradition would be plain.
Sinn Fein, alongside the non-sectarian Alliance Party, has the best of the political momentum now, and the DUP and the middle-class and moderate Ulster Unionist Party are looking…