James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, said on Monday that a “short window of opportunity” still existed to form a new power-sharing administration at the Stormont assembly but that “significant gaps” remained between the parties.
Mr Brokenshire said there would be “widespread dismay across the community” as the deadline to form a Northern Irish government came and went on Monday. However, he stopped short of calling another election, saying: “I believe that there remains an overwhelming desire among the political parties and the public here for strong and stable devolved government.”
The impasse has thrown the spotlight particularly on Sinn Fein, the main nationalist party in the province. In this month’s Northern Irish election, it came within 1,200 first-preference votes of becoming the largest party in the Stormont assembly for the first time, and is now just one seat short of the Democratic Unionist party.
The Northern Ireland secretary said there were particular problems “surrounding culture and identity”, and Sinn Fein certainly has disagreements with unionist parties, in issues including gay marriage, recognition of the Irish language, and Brexit. The DUP supported Britain’s departure from the EU, while Sinn Fein is opposed.
It was arguments such as these that, in part, were behind the breakdown of the all-party talks this weekend to try to put new devolved power-sharing arrangements in place. Both sides blamed each other for not entering talks in the right spirit, while Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill claimed the DUP had failed to honour previous agreements.
But policy battles are far from the only reason why Sinn Fein is in no hurry to reach a deal — indeed, restoring government to the province may not even be its highest priority.
For one thing, the party is going through a generational leadership change. It has an inexperienced cadre at the top that is struggling to fill the leadership vacuum left by Martin McGuinness, its longtime chief negotiator, who died last week.
For another, it has bigger electoral horizons than Stormont. Its focus is the Irish Republic, where a general election looks increasingly likely in the next 18 months.
“Sinn Fein is in a very strong position in the north. There is no need to rush into a power-sharing arrangement they don’t like,” said Deaglan de Breadun, author of a book about the rise of the modern Sinn Fein. “For them, the key thing is the south.”
Sinn Fein has been in government in Northern Ireland for the past decade, while it has been in opposition in the Republic, where it currently has 23 MPs in the Dail, the Irish parliament. That is an often uncomfortable experience for an organisation whose vision is to be the governing party in an all-Ireland republic.
Its task, therefore, is to manage its generational shift and reconcile its strategies on both sides of the border. Pat Leahy, political editor of the Irish Times, wrote at the weekend: “Maintaining the unity and integrity of the northern and southern wings of the party during this difficult and delicate process remains the highest priority for Sinn Fein — more important than the Dail, than Stormont, than anything.”
Sinn Fein’s success in the Stormont election and the death of McGuinness has brought Gerry Adams, the party’s president, back into the spotlight.
For the past several weeks he has been carefully chaperoning Michelle O’Neill, who has replaced McGuinness as the Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland. Mr Adams and Mrs O’Neill may feel the enhanced electoral mandate allows the party to be more uncompromising in its engagements with the DUP. “Gerry is less conciliatory than Martin used to be,” Mr de Breadun says.
Even with its newfound electoral strength north of the Irish border, there are risks for Sinn Fein in missing the “short window of opportunity” to form a government. Should the deadlock lead to another vote, it is unlikely that unionist supporters would stay at home in such numbers as they did earlier this month.
The party’s appeal south of the border is also under question. An opinion poll in the Sunday Business Post, a Dublin newspaper, last month put it at 19 per cent — more than it got in last year’s general election in the Republic. Yet for a party with a strong opposition line — and facing an unstable minority government led by a lame-duck Taoiseach — some pundits say it should be doing better.