It may seem odd to compare Father Martin Magill, the priest who spoke last week at Lyra Mackee’s funeral, with Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old girl who spoke last week at the Palace of Westminster – but please bear with us. Both gained standing ovations from their audience. But in neither case is the applause likely to signal a change of course.
Michael Gove told Thunberg that “Your voice – still, calm and clear – is like the voice of our conscience. “When I listened to you, I felt great admiration, but also responsibility and guilt.” But for the person with capacity to change the Government’s policy, look to a venerable peer, John Deben, rather than a teenage activist, namely Thurberg. For it is Deben’s Committee on Climate Change which, in practice though not in theory, sets the framework for government emissions policy.
Fr Magill asked: “why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get to this point?” He was referring to talks in Northern Ireland about the restoration of devolved government. Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill stood to join the ovation. That is the fastest move she is likely to make on the matter for some time. It pulled out of government for its own reasons, and there is no sign that these have changed.
One can understand why Theresa May has sought to seize the moment, and join in the pressure on the Northern Ireland parties to move. But the harsh truth is that very few of Northern Ireland’s horrors have made a quick change to the province’s fractious politics. The Omagh bombing was perhaps an exception. But in this case, neither of the main parties have much of an incentive to shift their positions on the most contentious issues.
Sinn Fein has a clearly-defined stance on the Irish language, what are euphemistically called “legacy issues”, and social issues such as same-sex marriage. The DUP is not at all of the same mind. The two have cohabited in government, on and off, since the age of the Belfast Agreement. Sinn Fein has concluded that it is not in its interest to do so at present. And the remote prospect of a No Deal Brexit provides another incentive not to return.
Admittedly, such an outcome is improbable. Some Brexiteers have gambled on the EU, led by France, refusing the UK membership extensions. Their hopes have not been realised to date. Besides, most of the EU27 countries, plus the Commission, have an incentive to extend – namely, the hostility in the Irish Republic to No Deal and the harder border that would follow. And the Commons might well plump in extremis for revocation rather than No Deal. But Sinn Fein will be reluctant to gamble on it not happening.
Were it to do so, the Republican vote in Northern Ireland would doubtless rise. But the party would be saddled with the co-responsibility of administering No Deal. This is not a task that it would relish. Furthermore, the Prime Minister has signalled that one of the reasons why she is unwilling to countenance No Deal at present is precisely that Northern Ireland’s institutions are not in place to help mediate it. Sinn Fein has thus been given, in effect, a veto on No Deal.
Meanwhile, the DUP has clocked May breaking from the precedent of the Cameron years, whereby the Prime Minister fought shy of joint public statements with the Taioseach, at least as far as Northern Ireland is concerned. It was a way of making it clear to all concerned that the province is not under joint authority. But May last week gave a joint statement with Leo Varadkar, and Karen Bradley a joint press conference with Simon Coveney.
These diplomatic move sis a disincentive to the renewal of the Conservatives’ confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP. They represented a very small shift. But little things can have a big effect on the politics of Northern Ireland. One wonders why the Prime Minister thinks that any sketchy gain from it is worth the potential loss. Perhaps she thinks that she won’t be around in the summer to deal with the consequences.