As the Humpty Dumpty of the Stormont executive came falling to the ground and talks failed, the rush to put Humpty together again began.
That will prove to be difficult. The claim is that the collapse was caused by the scale of corruption involved in a heating scheme administered by DUP leader Arlene Foster. Sinn Fein deny this. They say that they gave Foster a "get out of jail free" card that would have established a way to bury the scandal with Arlene standing aside for a few weeks. The issue that actually led to the collapse was loud assertions of sectarian dominance and privilege by the DUP, spiced up by provocation and insult aimed at the Irish language.
In this crisis Sinn Fein were telling the truth, if not the whole truth. The history of the Stormont executive has been one of continuous pressure from the DUP to assert sectarian privilege. In order to keep the show on the road Sinn Fein, squeezed by London, Dublin and the US, have colluded in endless corruption and in conceding more and more to loyalism.
It was not a process that could go on forever and it imploded when Sinn Fein supporters decided that they had had enough and forced the leadership to leave the joint administration, thereby collapsing it.
Formula for restoration
The Adams team's formula for a new coalition was simple enough. Issues such as implementation of an Irish Language Act and "legacy issues" involving killings by state forces had been resolved in earlier deals. Now was the time to honour those agreements.
The DUP refused absolutely to agree to this. Their counterposition was that the executive be reformed "without preconditions" - a position that would mean acceptance of a mountain of sectarianism and corruption. They would only agree to discuss movement on the Irish Language if further resources were given to an imaginary language based on a local English dialect and if the act included a military compact granting special rights to members of the British military - so there is no acceptance that there is any past agreement and an absolute determination to block any movement on the issue.
As far as "legacy issues" are concerned the British have already ruled out disclosure of the state's role on grounds of security.
It is impossible for Sinn Fein to return to the executive without any concessions. Their election success was based on a popular upsurge that they cannot immediately defy. Yet many deals have been struck where a combination of smoke and mirrors created the illusion of progress and allowed the executive to stagger on. Why is even the pretence of concession absent here? Why are Sinn Fein’s calls for all the trappings of past crisis talks and the appointment of an independent arbitrator so brusquely dismissed by the British? Why is the whole structure of new talks based on forcing a Sinn Fein retreat?
The reality is that the Irish Peace process, as with many others around the world, is actually a pacification process. It is not meant to lead to a better future or to finally resolve conflict, but to wrap the reality of defeat in layers of obfuscation. As time passes the layers of obfuscation wear thin, but it is the former rebels who most fear the grim face of reality.
The Good Friday Agreement held out the vision of a democratic and non-sectarian future that would gradually evolve towards a united Ireland. Among the cloud of falsehoods was one great one: that Britain had no selfish strategic or economic interest in Ireland.
However, as Theresa May has just reminded us, Britain will never be neutral on the partition of Ireland. Britain's role is based on its unionist supporters. The stresses that the new deal set up for them had to be corrected through a series of crises and amendments of the agreement. That process reached its end with the Fresh Start Agreement of 2016.
Along the way Sinn Fein agreed to leave off the agenda issues such as the Irish language and state killings and turn a blind eye to loyalist sectarianism and corruption. The British will not accept any extensive renegotiation.
Sinn Fein are being invited to like it or lump it. The pacification process has been extremely successful.
It has of course been successful in military terms. The idea that the Provisionals would take up arms again or even mobilise on the streets is simply ludicrous.
Yet the greatest success of the peace process has been in terms of popular consciousness. Issues of class, the idea of imperialist domination, are replaced with concepts of cultural clashes, of conflict resolution and a firm belief, held in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that local politics are progressing towards a non-sectarian and democratic future. This belief is so overwhelming that the trade union leadership were able to sell acceptance of the Fresh Start austerity deal on the grounds that the workers need to sacrifice in order to save Stormont from being replaced by direct rule.
The young nationalists whose votes have hobbled Sinn Fein’s freedom of movement, even though they recognise that the political institutions have not delivered, believe that it can be reformed to do so.
In the background there is quite a sharp class division. Sections of the nationalist middle class, supported by the trade union bureaucracy, demand the immediate restoration of Stormont. As there are no conditions attached to this call, it is essentially pressure on Sinn Fein to concede to the DUP. Unbelievably one of the most vocal proponents of this position is SWP/PBP MLA Gerry Carroll. The argument is that the Assembly is needed to deal with budget issues related to local services, to progress new legislation to “meet the needs of the workers” and to act as a defence of local interests in Brexit negotiations.
However among the nationalist youth who voted for Sinn Fein there is a widespread understanding that Stormont has not progressed any of these issues and its main activity is the unequal division of sectarian spoils. Rather than a local administration being essential to economic progress, they realise that it is implementing a cuts agenda and that the vast majority of financial issues can now be progressed by a single civil servant. They are waiting patiently for Sinn Fein to deliver an equality agenda, while London and Dublin wait less patiently for Adams to accept reality.
The 2017 elections have seen a step change to much greater instability in an already unstable settlement. Brexit will be a stunning blow because it will disprove all of Sinn Fein’s blather about movement towards a united Ireland. The outcome of the convulsions that are to come depends on the growth of a new movement and the rebirth of class and anti-imperialist consciousness.
The first step on this growth process will
be when young Sinn Fein supporters ask the leadership what exactly has
been achieved by decades of capitulation.