Patrick Murphy: DUP's increased influence increases chances of Stormont's resurrection

DUP leader Arlene Foster and her deputy leader Nigel Dodds arrive at 10 Downing Street for talks with Theresa May. Picture by Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

The DUP's deal with the Conservative government puts a new light on the election result, increases the chances of Stormont's resurrection and presents a fresh challenge for Sinn Féin's political strategy. As Yeats might have said, all is changed, changed utterly, from a week ago.

Arlene Foster's election victory proved greater than even she had imagined. Through additional resources and/or tax breaks for Stormont, her deal with the Conservatives may restore some of her lost authority and regain an element of public respect for the assembly.

If it also contains a Westminster commitment to a frictionless Irish border, the DUP will have done more for Irish economic unity than Sinn Féin's abstentionism.

That will leave Sinn Féin with a new challenge. It had been expected that it would delay a return to Stormont in the hope of an early Dublin election. The executive's inability to resolve growing social and economic inequality in the north had become an electoral liability in the south.

Opposing austerity in Dublin, while implementing it in Belfast, eventually became too difficult. So the party denied responsibility for Stormont's failings and once again walked away from its past.

Just as it re-wrote its Irish freedom war as a conflict for equal rights, it re-wrote its role in Stormont's chuckling and back-slapping (and promoting the RHI scheme) as corruption and a lack of integrity in which it played no part.

The party once again re-invented itself as a victim. It was a clever move, which tapped into the public's frustration with a failed Stormont, brought two huge election victories and buried the SDLP. All it had to do was wait for new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, to offer a third electoral opportunity.

But the DUP's promise of gifts from London has changed all that, despite SF and SDLP protests at Conservative bias in the Stormont talks. A return to Stormont may prove irresistible to SF with additional executive resources and a chance to influence the British government on Brexit.

So while Stormont was "bad" during the long war, "good" for the past ten years and then "bad" again since Christmas, it might be "good" again soon. (You may remember that the EU used to be "bad", but the same EU is now "good".)

SF's fascinating and flexible use of language allows it to heavily influence the thought process of constitutional nationalists, as evidenced by the recent election results. It is tempting to examine it alongside George Orwell's fictional Newspeak, an altered form of regular English designed to determine public opinion by restricting independent thought.

The party's return to Stormont will be easy. It will just claim victory in overcoming its hitherto ill-defined concepts of corruption and inequality. The nationalist electorate will cheer. The party's MLAs will return to eating assembly food, which is subsidised by the taxpayer, while 23 per cent of children here remain in poverty. Another victory for old Ireland.

But although SF now has absolute power over northern nationalism, it is no nearer a united Ireland. To win votes, both it and the DUP have had to heighten sectarian hopes and fears to the highest political level since the foundation of the state.

In opting to represent only Catholics in the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin remarkably passed up the opportunity to build the wider, non-sectarian base essential for Irish unity. The party's Midas touch in turning everything into electoral gold also turns everything it touches into a sectarian issue. So the more votes it wins, the more divided is our society and the more remote is the possibility of a united Ireland.

Ah but, say SF supporters, look at the green half of the north's new electoral map. Sadly, it is similar to the type of map which former IRA chief of staff, Sean Cronin, used to produce during the 1950s campaign. A gentleman, a top class military strategist and later a wonderful Washington correspondent for the Irish Times, he subsequently realised that struggles are not won by capturing territory. They can only be won by capturing the hearts and minds of those who live there.

There are a million reasons why the latest electoral map will not produce a united Ireland. They are all called unionists.

Meanwhile our ultra-sectarian society remains engrossed in watching a bizarre political pantomime, which is largely divorced from the real world, on both sides of the Irish Sea. As Marx might say, constitutional politics has replaced religion as the opium of the people.

Right on cue, Sinn Féin said this week that Stormont is a stepping-stone to a united Ireland. Of course, it is. Anyone for more opium?


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