Countdown to When?
As Ian Paisley, the theocratic leader of the North, shuffles his way to a side pew, there seems little apprehension anywhere about the future of the right of centre rubber stamp executive and its folks on the hill who like to tell us that it is they rather than the British chancellor who are charged with determining our collective future. The DUP loves being top dog. Sinn Fein would prefer it were not so but as the DUP dismissively says of it, there is nowhere else for it to go. Even Jeremiah would be hard pressed to think up a crisis cataclysmic enough to cause a volcanic eruption on Mount Stormont that would see gangs of northern politicians spewed out of office.
Apart from Free Presbyterian devotees who probably felt Paisley would live another three hundred years before being raptured into Heaven others were aware of the bawling bigot’s political and physical mortality. British officials have in the past year detected a nervousness within the echelons of Sinn Fein that rises and falls in direct proportion to the ebb and flow of Paisley’s strength vis a vis his party advisors who for some time have been offering him only advice to go. The party that once stood for the armed destabilisation of the Northern state now craves stability within it.
Sinn Fein’s anxiety is not rooted in any expectation that the executive will collapse but that big Chuckle will not be around to grin at wee Chuckle any more. The nationalist party, reportedly, has been pleasantly surprised that Paisley was affable in his dealings with it and did not demand that its MLAs sing the Sash in public. A Sinn Fein audience having to silently stomach someone address the Ard Fheis wearing an orange sash was most likely considered obeisance enough.
Not that affability could ever be equated with magnanimity. Whatever its internal dynamics, when the executive finally got up and running in May last year the body language between the dominant dealers suggested not a partnership of equals but a hierarchical structure where both top dog and lap dog knew their station and stuck to it. Big Paisley for all his garrulous banter, in the words of one long term observer, had the measure of Sinn Fein and has outmanoeuvred the party on the issues of Irish language, the Maze Stadium and most crucially devolution of policing and justice. He chuckled as he pushed the blade in. Doubtless, his boast that he smashed Sinn Fein was grossly inflated. He just pulverised its republicanism. As good as, some will think.
Nevertheless, Sinn Fein is said to feel gratitude toward Paisley but to harbour serious trepidations about his ambitious prince and heir apparent, the Machiavellian Peter Robinson. The acidulous East Belfast MP and key DUP strategist was the person most eager in the Paisley party to do the deal that would end the central debate within unionism which amounted to whether Sinn Fein should be permitted to administer the only rule in town – British. In the months after the Northern Bank robbery and the killing of Robert McCartney, Robinson, although initially forced onto the back foot by these events, steadily regained his composure and persuaded the bulk of his colleagues that the time was ripe for encircling Sinn Fein. He argued that the best approach would be to take the Adams party for all it was worth in negotiations: force it into supporting the British Police Service of Northern Ireland, compel it to buckle to British stipulations that Belfast would host a greater MI5 presence than ever before, have it emasculate the IRA. Then, having demonstrated how weak the former republican party had become, use Sinn Fein’s prostrate body as a stepping stone into the new British administration.
Bad as it was, it was as good as it got for Sinn Fein. Now the party barometers accurately sense that the chill factor is about to intensify. In anticipation the party has visited its dusty vaults and pulled out a few republican garments for display in the hope that the Robinson DUP might pull its horns in a little if it still thinks there is some republican sentiment left in the party that might rebel if squeezed too tightly. As The Sunday Business Post put it, ‘get your Brits out for the boys.’
All of which serves to underscore the era of the Chuckle brothers being at an end. The North stands poised to enter a new dispensation - the Brothers Grim. Robinson will continue with the substance of the Paisley regime minus the jingles which so harmed the old theocrat in the eyes of those who believed him more than he had ever really believed himself.
The new abrasive style will prove irritating but it is hard to see what Sinn Fein can now do other than get over it. It may try to go down the negotiation route but the balance of forces and current political juncture deny it a strong hand. The party ultimately flattered to deceive. It is clear from Blair’s former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, that the peace process is now stamped ‘finished business.’ There is no longer any need for the British state to remain on stand-by with its bag of goodies. It has secured its long standing objective of rendering ineffectual the military capacity of the IRA to effect political change. The approach of Gordon Brown towards the political process here will be more laissez-faire. Sinn Fein, denied the ability to plead special circumstance, will just have to mix it with the DUP and fight for whatever crumbs fall its way.
For the electorate, its return will be an ever expanding right ward drift, depreciation in the quality of public services coupled with social assets being flogged off to the private sector, increasing erosion of the already limited fiscal wellbeing of the economically vulnerable, attacks on those elements of the workforce least able to resist such as classroom assistants: all against a right wing backcloth of strengthened police powers over working class communities.
In a decade’s time where shall it all be? 2016 is just around the corner. That year the commemorations of the 1916 Easter rising will likely be met with indifference in the unionist community. Those inclined to march will do so under the watchful eye of the British PSNI, reporting back to MI5 that there were no disturbances. The unionists will have other things on their minds; like thinking four years ahead on how best to celebrate 100 years of partition.
First published in Fourthwrite, Spring 2008