Opinion

Is there a sweet spot where SF and DUP could actually govern together? – Alex Kane

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.

First Minister Michelle O'Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly with members of the Northern Ireland Executive at Stormont Castle (Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye)

I wonder if there is a sweet spot in the middle at which all of the parties could meet and agree to govern in common cause?

It seems a fair enough question to ask right now, especially when you bear in mind that the assembly has been more down than up since the first executive in November 1999 and when there seems to be a general view among the public – voter and non-voter – that the chances of stability, let alone permanence, are pretty slim.

So, how do we stabilise it? It’s clearly going to be pretty difficult if SF seems determined to focus on building an all-island economy, which I know you support, Brian, while the DUP is waiting for Rishi Sunak to introduce legislation which somehow copper-fastens NI’s position within the UK.



Both of those strategies might best be described as ‘ourselves alone’ strategies, because one appeals exclusively to electoral/constitutional nationalism, while the other appeals exclusively to electoral/constitutional unionism.

And since it’s against the success or otherwise of those strategies that unionist and nationalist voters will determine who to vote for, it is very unlikely that SF or the DUP will be searching for an approach that would be viewed by their voter base as a ‘softening’. In other words, we started day one of the rebooted assembly with precisely the same chasm between the DUP and SF as there was in May 2022, or March 2017 or – go on – pick any date of your own choosing.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson with Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson with Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill (Liam McBurney/PA)

The political/electoral middle ground – Alliance – did well in May 2022. Indeed, it has done well at every election since Brexit. But that doesn’t actually matter. Real power in this assembly lies with SF and the DUP. It is they, together or separately, who will determine what happens. My gut instinct is that both of those parties will actually grow over the next few years, primarily because both of the constitutional blocs will focus increasingly on the UK vs united Ireland issue.

None of this means that a border poll will necessarily be called within a decade or, if called, that unionism will be on the losing side. But the border poll debate is on the table and it’s not going away. Unionism is prioritising ‘safeguarding and securing the union’ legislation because it knows the border poll issue will not be disappearing.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris during a joint press conference at Hillsborough Castle
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris present the British government's 'Safeguarding the Union' command paper during a joint press conference at Hillsborough Castle (Niall Carson/PA)

And if SF finds itself in the next Irish government, as well as lead party in NI, you can bet your bottom Euro that it will be pressing a UK government – with Irish input – to set out the specific terms and conditions for the calling of a border poll. Again – and it’s only my gut instinct – I think it’s likely that a UK government would agree to do that. Alliance might find itself with a dilemma at that point, because the government might seek its opinion on the issue; meaning it might be required to give a clear yes or no.

The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement was marked in April
The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement was marked last April

My fear is that accommodation between the blocs is now impossible through the existing institutions. My bigger fear is that accommodation between the blocs would also be impossible under direct rule or in a united Ireland.

So, is there a sweet spot?

My fear is that accommodation between the blocs is now impossible through the existing institutions