In Moygashel, a village on the edge of Dungannon in County Tyrone, a sign told Martin McGuinness to "rot in hell". So often mischaracterised as a hotbed for religious rather than political strife, the existence of hell and whether or not McGuinness is in it seems immaterial now as Northern Ireland drifts into its second year in limbo.
It’s been 12 months since McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister – collapsing the Executive Office and eventually dissolving the Legislative Assembly – and ten months after his death, Theresa May’s fumbled cabinet reshuffle sought to address the fact that Northern Ireland has now gone a full year without a government.
The North’s new Secretary of State Karen Bradley’s qualifications include having spoken about the North twice in the Commons in an eight-year Parliamentary career. She begins her new job with Sinn Féin and the Tory government’s guarantors in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) nowhere near an agreement to return to the executive, as well as having to deal with revelations from newly-declassified state papers which revealed that, among other things, MI5 had asked the UVF to assassinate then-Irish Taoiseach Charles Haughey.
Ordinarily, an inquest would be expected, but the behaviour of one Sinn Féin MP is currently making cross-community support for anything unlikely, so Bradley is unlikely to order one. Barry McElduff, Sinn Féin’s abstentionist MP for West Tyrone, enraged unionists and dismayed republicans when he tweeted a video of himself with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head. He tweeted it on the 5th of January, the anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre – where the Provisional IRA killed ten Protestant civilians.
His bizarre defence – that he is constantly putting domestic items on his head and that the timing was coincidental – was rejected, as was his eventual apology and offer to meet with family representatives of the victims. McElduff was suspended from all party activity for three months with pay. Michelle O’Neill, McGuinness’ successor as SF leader in the North, could have taken the opportunity to deselect a liability MP with no pull outside of his constituency. Instead, she supplied unionists with ammo in the constant back and forth over which side is less committed to reconciliation, and McElduff would eventually resign of his own accord on the 15th of January. DUP leader Arlene Foster called the suspension "meaningless" and McElduff "depraved", but has remained silent about her party’s Member of Legislative Assembly Christopher Stalford tweeting a cartoon of Gerry Adams standing on the blood of the Kingsmill victims in response to McEld
Foster has her own problems to worry about, with her appearance at the public inquest into the Renewable Heat Initiative scandal now due to take place "within weeks". The RHI, a renewable energy scheme managed by Foster’s office when she was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, cost the public purse £490 million, either through fraud or negligence. It was Foster’s refusal to temporarily stand aside for an inquiry that led to McGuinness’ resignation.
If she sticks to the obtuse and paranoid persona she has cultivated, Foster may well be the last unionist First Minister. Olive branches that need to be extended – attrition for RHI, Acht na Gaeilge (an act protecting and funding the Irish language), marriage equality and abortion reform – are not in her repertoire. While she remains head of the DUP, direct rule or this current form of stasis are the only prospects until 2024, when, as Brian Feeney pointed out in Irish News, the voting majority in the North will be Catholic for the first time. Usually, the DUP could count on 1 percent of the Catholic vote; even that low figure is unlikely now.
Foster has continuously said that she is ready to form an Assembly "tomorrow" and iron out the issues within government, but Sinn Féin know that returning without an Acht would alienate 70 percent of their voter base. Foster is more likely concerned with dodging impending pay cuts for MLAs (Members of Northern Ireland's Assembly): a recent review recommended that MLA salaries be cut from £49,500 to £35,888, with an immediate cut of £7,425 followed by another of £6,187 if no Assembly has been agreed within three months.
Karen Bradley is probably just an unwitting greenhorn being told to fill a canyon with glue, but being described as a "good unionist" by Ian Paisley Jr. isn’t the best first step towards MLAs avoiding these cuts. Sinn Féin will rightly be suspicious of any Tory MP's impartiality while the British government is propped up by the DUP.
We’ve been here before, from 2003 to 2006, when SF and the DUP were first elected to power share and wrangled over PIRA disarmament for three years without an Assembly. But it feels like this experiment has now reached its logical conclusion. Bradley spoke of the symbolic power of her first press appearance being in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter. She’s right, but not because it represents the North’s past and future, as she suggested. She doesn’t realise that she has just boarded a ship that has stubbornly stayed its course for so long that it has no choice but to sink.