Patrick Murphy: This Holy Saturday, politics in Ireland is in an unholy mess - The Irish News
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Patrick Murphy: This Holy Saturday, politics in Ireland is in an unholy mess

There might not be anything happening with the talks at Stormont over Easter, but at least the grass is getting cut. Picture by Hugh Russell.

FOLLOWING a six-week political stand-off, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was commemorated this year by the Holy Thursday Disagreement.

In a new twist for religion in Ireland, we are apparently developing a tradition of marking significant dates in the Christian calendar with institutionalised religious division between political followers of its two main churches.

This pattern will presumably expand to include the Easter Argument and the Complete Christmas Collapse.

A sceptical attitude, you say, and you have a point. But, as someone once said, scepticism is the first step towards truth...

The truth about Stormont's paused negotiations is that Sinn Féin now controls the political agendas north and south. It is pursuing both with intellect, ability and a degree of cunning which makes most nationalist movements in the past 300 years look amateur.

The party's aim is not to enter Stormont until it can claim that all its demands have been met - which would be a victory - or to gain power in Dublin before re-entering government in the north, which would be an even bigger victory.

Right now, the second appears more likely that the first.

However, Fine Gael (FG) and Fianna Fáil (FF) want them in Stormont prior to a Dáil election, to put them under pressure for failing, as they have in the past, to deliver on northern health, education and housing.

So there are two parallel and inter-dependent processes operating in Irish politics this Easter weekend. It is personified by foreign minister, Charlie Flanagan, who is trying to get Sinn Féin into government in Belfast and keep them out of government in Dublin.

To stay out of Stormont, Sinn Féin says that key issues for government are an Irish language act, equality, same-sex marriage, a civic forum - oh, how we miss the civic forum - a bill of rights, equality - did I mention that? - legacy issues and singing the Irish national anthem before every Stormont sitting. I made the last one up but you could include it and it would not make the talks any less likely to succeed.

So the talks are just talks. They include no reference to health, housing, education, welfare or social and economic inequality. This is Ireland; we just do religious equality.

Nor do they include an agreed position on Brexit, or where Stormont might sit in terms of the normal politics of left and right. This is Ireland; we do populism, not politics.

Meanwhile in Dublin, the two main parties have recognised Sinn Féin's strategy and they are determined not to hold an election, on the basis that democracy might be a bad idea.

Recent revelations have shown that the Garda has religiously adhered to Ireland's centuries-old policing tradition of prosecuting the innocent and absolving the guilty. To avoid an election, FF refused to call for the Garda Commissioner's dismissal.

It also struck a deal with FG over water charges, when it could have brought the government down. So it missed a second electoral opportunity to become the Dáil's largest party. But it would still have needed a coalition partner.

Both FF and FG recognise that, as happened to the DUP, they would soon be out-manoeuvred by Sinn Féin, which could easily walk out of a coalition and trigger an election on a populist issue. If it worked in Belfast, it will work in Dublin.

Sinn Féin sat in an executive which presided over two of Ireland's biggest political scandals, Nama and RHI, but emerged smelling of roses from both. That's why FF and FG fear them in coalition.

So how will it all pan out? A key indicator will come tomorrow when Gerry Adams speaks at the Easter commemoration in Carrickmore. That will reveal what Sinn Féin is thinking, or what it wants others to think it is thinking.

The other indicator is how Arlene Foster uses her contact with Irish language groups to undo her remarks about crocodiles.

The least important player is Secretary of State James Brokenshire,who has threatened the parties with another election, failing to recognise that for Sinn Féin at least, another election is not a threat. Mr B appears to be a nice man, but he has the distinct disadvantage of coming across as an actor playing the part of a government minister in a TV sit-com.

So 101 years after the Easter Rising, as plans are announced to close 80 rural post offices in the south and hundreds of schools go broke in the north's already fragile education system, the Irish people can only watch as two games of political poker unfold.

Which means, this Holy Saturday, that what passes for politics in Ireland is something of an unholy mess.

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