THE POLITICAL CRISIS in the Six Counties is deepening. The election on 2 March is a consequence of this worsening political situation.
The actions of DUP ministers which led to the collapse of the political institutions made that inevitable. But the value and viability of the political institutions have been under sustained pressure for a long period of time.
The DUP’s hostility towards power-sharing and partnership, its refusal to embrace equality or properly adhere to the Good Friday Agreement, and its institutionalised bigotry and intolerance for mutual respect have been steadily corrupting the political process.
Red Sky, NAMA, inappropriate relationships with unionist paramilitaries and RHI have all become bywords for the DUP’s political arrogance and contempt.
All of these factors climaxed in a tipping point in December which made the political institutions and existing status quo unsustainable – a fact mirrored by unprecedented popular anger at the DUP’s abuse of political power.
The failure of the British and Irish governments to fulfil their international obligations under the Good Friday Agreement has contributed massively to the current crisis.
This is the culmination of both governments taking the Peace Process for granted since 2010 and 2011 respectively. Both governments have ignored this reality.
A significant and influential section of the DUP (known euphemistically as “The Twelve Apostles”) have always opposed power-sharing and partnership. That has found expression in their opposition to power-sharing and partnership, and hostility to equality in all its manifestations.
These are the people who forced Ian Paisley out of the DUP leadership after he led that party into coalition government with Sinn Féin and others in 2007.
The regressive mind-set of the The Twelve Apostles still dominates within the DUP.
So when the Conservative Party came back into government in Britain in 2010, an opportunity was seized to push back against the progress of the Peace Process. That fact has defined the political process for the last seven years.
The reality is that when political unionism believes it is not accountable, it reverts to the comfort zone of Orange State politics.
Instead, the Conservative Government has become increasingly pro-unionist and politically aligned with both the DUP and UUP, as evidenced in their mutually shared positions on Brexit, promoting the single unionist narrative of the conflict, opposition to Irish-language rights, and blocking any progress on dealing with the past.
The British and Irish governments need to understand equality, parity of esteem and respect are no longer negotiable. That negotiation is over. It concluded in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and yet, 19 years later, it has still not been fully implemented.
Recently, a senior unionist suggested that this crisis was inevitable and it just happened to be on the issue of RHI.
He was right – RHI was the tipping point. However, for as long as the DUP and others within political unionism remain opposed to power-sharing and equality, the North will be destined to remain locked in permanent crisis.
During the debate on the Good Friday Agreement before the Assembly closed down, DUP speakers referred to their party’s negativity towards power-sharing and how they still ‘hold their noses’ when working with Sinn Féin.
Those were significant insights to current DUP attitudes.
The DUP leader’s dehumanising description of republicans as ‘crocodiles’ and disrespect for the Irish language is a further stark illustration of that party’s real mindset. It was an echo of David Trimble’s words when he alluded to Sinn Féin as dogs who needed to be ‘house trained’.
When republicans, nationalists and others refer to the DUP’s arrogance and contempt, we speak of how that party has been abusing and misusing political power. That reality goes to the very heart of this crisis.
Equality is not a concession or an appeasement.
All sections of society are entitled to have high expectations of our political institutions.
Sinn Féin has kept the political process under very careful review since 2013, when the DUP broke the agreement on the Maze/Long Kesh project, after their behaviour alongside loyalist paramilitaries during the flags protests, when they opposed the Hass/O’Sullivan proposals, and then following their deceitful undermining of the agreement on welfare in February/March 2015.
Our party has invested heavily in the political institutions and persevered with inordinate patience.
The difference between Sinn Féin, the DUP and others in political unionism is that we want to share power. The DUP is opposed to that agenda.
Republicans want to develop a reconciliation process. The DUP, the British Government and others in political unionism are locked into a mode of continuous psychological war and recrimination.
Sinn Féin wants to put equality at the heart of the political process for all citizens. But the DUP and powerful agencies within the British state have never reconciled themselves to the outworking of power-sharing and partnership. This is the reason why political unionism and the British Government have become clearly aligned in opposition to dealing with the past with their demand for complete immunity from prosecution of all British state forces.
That position clearly indicates both the British and DUP have decided they do not want to positively resolve this impasse in any post-election negotiation process.
The most recent public interventions by senior DUP figures, including the party leader, also suggest that party does not want to engage seriously in post-election negotiations.
The Good Friday Agreement drew a line under the political conflict in the Six Counties. As a result, the Peace Process is irreversible.
However, until the DUP and others in political unionism, and both the British and Irish governments accept responsibility for implementing the Good Friday Agreement – and their binding international obligations – this much is clear: there will be no restoration of the political institutions.
Direct rule was a failed status quo. The DUP’s refusal, and the two governments’ failure to adhere to the Good Friday Agreement and all successive agreements, has now created another failed status quo. There can be no return to either scenario.
The Sinn Féin position is clear – republicans, nationalists, women, LGBT communities and ethnic minorities are not going to be pushed to the back of the bus again.
Unless there is a qualitative step-change in the political process and an end to political corruption, unless equality is firmly entrenched at the heart of the political process, there is no point in having the political institutions because they will have no value.
In those circumstances, the North could face the prospect of protracted political crisis.
That would be an untenable situation.
The alternative must be for civic society to stand with political parties committed to equality, and against corruption and the DUP. And the Irish Government must stand up against the negativity of the British Government. This is the only way forward.
The Assembly election on 2 March will be another watershed for the Peace Process.