Lots of questions but only Daithi McKay can provide the answers

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

North Antrim Sinn Féin MLA Daithi McKay
North Antrim Sinn Féin MLA Daithi McKay North Antrim Sinn Féin MLA Daithi McKay

The UUP and SDLP like to complain about the 'dictatorial tendencies' of the DUP and Sinn Féin.

A few days ago an old friend from the UUP was telling me that it was awful that DUP/SF members and representatives weren't allowed to speak out of turn for fear of being drummed out of the party. Indeed, he went further and said that he liked the 'broad church approach' of the UUP and the fact that members weren't afraid to speak their minds. Hmm.

He wasn't quite so enthusiastic when I reminded him that it was that very 'broad church approach' which had allowed open warfare and factionalism to dominate the UUP agenda from the late 1980s onward until it was finally eclipsed by the DUP. And there's an argument to be made that the party's recent public divisions over the EU - when a substantial wing of the party, including grassroots members and public representatives, backed Leave over the 'official' party policy of Remain - delivered their worst ever

assembly result in May.

An SDLP representative told me, the day after the Daithi McKay story broke, that it was just a pity that the 'Shinner culture of omerta' would probably stop most of the story becoming public. Ironically, he was the same SDLP representative who had told me in March that his party was "going to be destroyed in the assembly election because some of our people are just too effing stupid to realise that it's omerta that wins elections and not blabbing to the media about our own internal problems."

If truth be known the UUP and SDLP would love to run their party machines as ruthlessly and clinically as the DUP and SF do. There's nothing like the fear of de-selection, demotion, expulsion or internal isolation to keep the rebels and assorted troublemakers at bay.

Control doesn't mean that the members actually all agree with each other, let alone like each other, but it does mean that they will think twice before speaking to a journalist or columnist. And for so long as the DUP and SF remain top dogs then for so long will their members and representatives play by very tight rules. It's amazing how many consciences can be dazzled by the prospect of either retaining or attaining position.

But what we have seen in both these parties in the last couple of years has been an increase in internal tensions. There was clearly some sort of leadership/strategy split within Sinn Féin over the welfare aspects of the Stormont House Agreement (December 2014), leading to nine months of institutional instability from March 2016. At much the same time it became clear that a group within the DUP was doing everything it could - and the NAMA stuff was just part of it - to destabilise and topple Peter Robinson. It was a very uncomfortable time for both parties, not helped by the fact that their damage limitation tactics mostly consisted of turning on each other.

It was assumed that the Fresh Start Agreement at the end of last year, along with both parties having had comfortable victories in the assembly election, had quietened the storm. Then along came the McKay/Bryson story, McGuinness's shock and subsequent denial of knowledge or imprimatur, McKay's resignation, his replacement by Philip McGuigan and now the departure of a sizeable chunk of Sinn Féin's North Antrim association.

At the moment this is mostly an embarrassing distraction for Sinn Féin. It only really becomes interesting if, as Sherlock Holmes would put it, "a dog barks in the night-time." And the only dog that can bark is Daithi McKay. Did he act without approval from the leadership in the assembly? Was he instructed from the Dublin end of Sinn Féin? Has he been thrown to the wolves to protect others? Has he been shafted? Is he taking the punishment to save the blushes of others? Has he been set up by sources outside Sinn Féin? Was he the victim of an internal constituency coup? Was the leak intended to help Peter Robinson, or reheat the Nama story? There's probably another two dozen questions you can think of, but those will be doing for now. But if McKay doesn't bark then it looks unlikely that we'll ever get to the bottom of the story.

Is that why his supporters have left the North Antrim association: have they abandoned any hope of getting to the truth of the story? Has McKay even told them what happened?

What McKay did was extraordinarily stupid. But even extraordinarily stupid actions tend to start with an agenda and desired outcome. At this point we don't know what either of those was. At this point, too, it looks as if his political/electoral career is unsalvageable. That's a pity, because he was a talented politician. It's an even greater pity, though, if he has fallen on his sword for a party that, even now, is expunging him from their history.