Irish Republican News · April 26, 2004
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
The elephant will not be going away

By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)

Listening to some of the pundits marking time as the dreadfully slow count at the King’s Hall dragged on interminably was at times a bit surreal.

You got the impression that if you could see them sitting there, you would also see an elephant that they were ignoring in the studio set. And you’d burst out laughing.

They studiously talked about whether the DUP would enter talks with Sinn Féin, and when. What they would offer, what they might accept.

Would SF and the DUP wait until after the next British election and the complete annihilation of the SDLP and UUP, perhaps allow us all to relish the humiliation of Trimble losing his seat and trailing alone, sans prancing partner, out of Portadown where he disgraced himself in 1995?

All perfectly valid points, but still ignoring the elephant standing there.

You see it was all six-county stuff. The elephant in the room is the Sinn Féin vote in the Republic.

Last weekend changed Irish politics for a generation to come. As the Taoiseach said, Fianna Fail lost and Sinn Féin won. Sinn Féin have arrived on the national stage. It is certain that within 10 years, and probably by 2012, SF will be in the Dublin government.

Here’s the timetable. They already have five TDs. In the Republic’s next general election they will at least double that number. That’s about three years away. Could be sooner, but after these results Bertie Ahern will not be rushing to a general election.

Say there’s an election in 2007 and SF get 10 seats. Fine Gael and Labour will probably combine with a couple of PDs, if they’re still around, to exclude SF from government.

By 2012, time for the next general election, Sinn Féin TDs will number well into double figures and be too big to exclude. They’ll be like Dick Spring’s Labour party in the late 80s, early 90s. You couldn’t have a government without them.

You can argue about the precise dates and the numbers, but you can’t argue it won’t happen: it will. By the time of the Republic’s next election, 2007 at the latest, the IRA will have become an old comrades association.

Why wouldn’t they? As Gerry Adams said on Monday, the results north and south ‘vindicate Sinn Féin’s peace strategy’. That’s shorthand for saying it’s more to the advantage of the republican movement not to have an armed wing than to have one. Who can argue with that now?

What does it all mean for here? Decision time for the DUP, that’s what. You could measure the shock Jim Allister felt by the near hysteria of his graceless victory speech.

Here was a guy who understands exactly what SF’s breakthrough in the Republic means. If the DUP don’t use the position of strength they now enjoy and do a deal with SF soon, they’re going to have to deal with an Irish government which includes SF or which is strongly influenced, even blackmailed, by SF votes in the Dail.

It may be that the DUP want to wait to consolidate their position in 2005’s British election, to see off Trimble, whom they clearly despise, perhaps also to see if they can take advantage of a weakened Tony Blair, to see if they can exercise some leverage on a Labour government with a reduced majority.

Perhaps. That still means 2006 is the last chance the DUP have to make a deal advantageous to unionism. Guys like Robinson and Dodds are well aware of the basic ingredient in the history of unionism’s decline over the last 40 years. They know that every time unionists walked away from the table, there was less on it for them the next time they returned.

If ever a man sounded cornered it was Allister ranting in the King’s Hall on Monday. Sinn Féin’s emergence as an all-Ireland electoral force has driven home more clearly that at any time since 1921 unionism’s position as a minority in this island.

Allister, shouting at all and sundry to ‘Listen up’, presented a picture of a man with his back to the wall. It was a cry for help, an admission of political weakness.

Noises like those emanating from Allister might make people think the chances of a deal are nil, that the DUP’s strong showing makes one impossible.

The correct way to look at the results is that Sinn Féin’s strong showing on the national stage makes the DUP leadership realise they have no choice but to settle with Sinn Féin before SF can negotiate with the British as Irish cabinet ministers.

As John Major said when he became prime minister, ‘Well, who would have thought it?’

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© 2004 Irish Republican News