Monday, 21 March 2011
Budget 'buddies' squaring up for six week sham fight.
In seven days time the assembly will dissolve ahead of May’s election. That means anyone who’d got used to the current cuddly relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin will have to readjust.
For a six week period the parties will inhabit only one of Northern Ireland’s parallel political realities. It used to be known as normality. It’s a place where the ‘budget buddies’ are implacable foes.
So where a week or two ago, he was lauding Caitriona Ruane and Conor Murphy for their prowess in the executive, DUP leader Peter Robinson will claim he’s the man to halt Sinn Féin in its tracks. His colleague in the first minister’s office, Martin McGuinness, will cease being a responsible partner in government and resume his role as chief menace to loyal Ulster.
Meanwhile the Shinners will stop acting like Sammy Wilson‘s backing chorus. Instead we’ll hear a lot about the “united Ireland project” which is rolling forward with irresistible momentum thanks to Sinn Féin.
They’ll hark back to the hunger strikes, whose anniversary coincides with polling day. We might even hear again about the “re-conquest of Ireland”; a phrase coined by Gerry Adams to describe his party’s 3.4% swing in the Republic’s general election.
Sinn Féin will tempt nationalists with the prospect of beating the DUP into second place and nominating a first minister, with unimaginable consequences for Northern Ireland. The DUP will drive its campaign with the threat that Sinn Féin could become the biggest party and nominate a first minister, with unimaginable consequences for Northern Ireland.
It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, powered by the fear and loathing it inspires in voters. This year it will be turbo-charged by the notion that Sinn Féin can expect a ’bounce’ after its relative success in the Irish election.
No-one is keener to foster that idea than Sinn Féin itself, but with the DUP likely to buy into it too, it could become a self-fulfilling prophesy. In many respects the northern campaign kicked off immediately after the election count in Louth, with Adams posturing and preening for the cameras.
Admittedly Sinn Féin had reason to celebrate, but against the background of Fianna Fail’s implosion, its share of the spoils was hardly overwhelming. Adams et al achieved moderate success, by surfing anti-establishment feeling and barely mentioning the North.
FF, with its strong nationalist credentials, was decimated, yet the vast bulk of voters fled to parties traditionally less preoccupied with the border. Hardly evidence for a resurgence of old style republicanism, still less an important victory for an “all-Ireland project” or a “re-conquest of Ireland”.
Indeed prevailing wisdom in the Republic holds that if Adams’ old style anti-partition politics come to the fore in the Dail, rather than the party’s younger generation, Sinn Féin will struggle to build upon a decent electoral platform.
The party’s seasoned northern hands were wily enough to make hay while the sun shone nonetheless. All that stuff about conquests and advancing the all-Ireland cause is aimed primarily at northern rather than southern voters. And it finds no more receptive audience than the DUP.
On the Monday morning after the Irish poll, with some counts still continuing, the unionist party unveiled its candidate list for the assembly election. It was accompanied by the predictable dour warnings that a Sinn Féin First Minister would hand republicans a propaganda victory and the DUP’s doomsday scenario that Martin McGuinness could take the top spot and refuse to meet the Queen.
The fact that the two parties often work together like a single unit in the Assembly isn‘t mentioned. No matter, either, that their MLAs and ministers forged a genuine alliance during the three months it took to pass the budget from its draft stage.
The paradoxes don’t end there. If Sinn Féin does get a ‘bounce’ it will come from an election where it acted principally as a vehicle for protest. Here the party’s robust defence of an austerity budget firmly entrenches it within a new political establishment.
The DUP will play the Martin McGuinness card for all its worth, yet simultaneously talk up its record of cooperation in government, brandishing novel liberal credentials for the benefit of moderate unionists, .
It’s an irony that the two parties are just as interdependent fighting an election as poisonous enemies, as they are acting like cosy colleagues and passing legislation at Stormont. That may infuriate opponents - but the DUP and Sinn Féin show every sign of continuing to juggle their contradictions successfully.