Belfast, Northern Ireland. These days the violence in Ireland is confined to the verbal political arena, with expert and citizen alike praying it stays that way as new complications such as the UK Brexit and reunification of Ireland itself are the hot topic in the emerald isle.
However, a consensus appears to have emerged in recent weeks over McGuinness’s political legacy and what it means for Sinn Féin. By abandoning the bullet in favour of the ballot box, the narrative goes, Martin McGuinness succeeded in creating a political path towards what he and his party always dreamed of – a united Ireland.
This can be a seductive argument. After all, McGuinness leaves behind an electoral landscape in which Sinn Féin appears better placed than ever to pursue its ultimate goal. Thanks in no small part to Arlene Foster’s bungled handling of the ‘cash for ash’ scandal, the 2017 election, which left Sinn Féin just one seat shy of becoming Northern Ireland’s biggest party at last month’s Assembly elections.
Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, so the prevailing view is that a hard Brexit will push the province towards reunification. Just like in Scotland, it suddenly seems inevitable that one divisive referendum will lead to another – a prospect that looks even more likely now that British ministers have confirmed Northern Ireland would automatically remain in the EU if it voted to join the Republic.
While it may be true that both Sinn Fein and DUP parties today share the goal of securing a united Ireland by peaceful and democratic means, this is no guarantee that they will be able to agree upon a shared path towards that outcome if the Assembly is restored. Indeed, Northern Ireland’s electoral history suggests that these two old rivals for the nationalist vote will struggle to find any such common ground.
Meanwhile back in Dublin, the Fine Gael-led minority government is weak after narrowly surviving a vote of no confidence tabled by Sinn Féin in February. Indeed, the emergence of Sinn Féin as an electoral force south of the border has significantly complicated the Irish government’s role in the peace process, making it more difficult for Dublin to mediate disputes in the north without provoking criticism from Sinn Féin TDs in the south.
Meanwhile in London, Prime Minister Theresa May continues to devote very little attention to events in Belfast and has still only visited the province once since assuming office.
Why, then, is May so reluctant to intervene? This is what many Labour MPs wondered during a Commons statement by Brokenshire last month, when he was asked several times to explain why the Prime Minister was not considering a more active role in the talks.
The Irish inability to say anything convincing in reply betrayed an increasingly obvious explanation: the Prime Minister simply cannot afford to upset Northern Ireland’s unionist parties by getting too closely involved. With such a slim majority in the House of Commons and the Brexit negotiations just around the corner, May is increasingly reliant upon unionist votes to counteract the moderates in her own political corner.