David Brewster is a relatively recent convert to the DUP who left David Trimble’s negotiating team before the Belfast Agreement was agreed. Here he argues that the DUP has the capacity and the professionalism will conclude a deal that will satisfy the outstanding unionist concerns with the Belfast Agreement, regardless of the opinions of his former colleagues at Cunningham House.By David Brewster
The speculation about the possibility of a deal involving the DUP and SF/IRA has increased in recent days, stoked by UUP supporters keen to be absolved by the commission of the sins of which they have been guilty by the rather cynical adoption of a stance best summarised as â€œYouâ€™re no better than usâ€. In this analysis, power crazed Peter Robinson signs up to a government with Gerry Adams, ditching all the DUPâ€™s opposition to the Agreement in return for David Trimbleâ€™s old office in Stormont. The Unionist electorate, having finally seen through the shameless opportunism of the DUP, then returns to the Ulster Unionists on the basis that an honest rogue is preferable to a dishonest one.
As a comfort blanket, this is pretty feeble, but at the moment itâ€™s all the UUP have got. They have been marginalized as effectively as the SDLP from the current process, and itâ€™s proving difficult to adjust. But in the interests of fairness, letâ€™s pretend that such a fanciful scenario could come to pass, as many Ulster Unionists devoutly wish. Would the DUP split between fundamentalists and pragmatists, allowing the UUP a triumphant return? It is very unlikely, given the very different nature of the two parties. The UUP has been cursed by a large faction, most charitably described as sheep, who will follow the leader and accept his assurances that what is obviously a sell out is really a cunning plan.
As one once said in another of those interminable UUC debates â€œI know heâ€™s wrong but heâ€™s the leader, and Iâ€™m here to be ledâ€ The DUP also has a large section of members who are disposed to accept the judgement of their leader, but critically he, and they, would be far less disposed to accept a Good Friday Agreement mark 2. The DUP is different in outlook and nature, having a smaller, more active membership, in which that self-proclaimed â€œthrawnâ€ section has a larger influence, and is not disposed to succumb to the blandishments of the NIO, even if any leadership figure completely ignored the lessons of the past eight years. There is no large payroll or family vote sustaining a semi-detached group of liberal Assembly members. You just do not find large numbers of Democratic Unionists angling for knighthoods or seats in the Lords.
Suspend your disbelief for a time, and envisage a deal which is broadly established on the main elements of the last Agreement but its foundations show a significant advance in quality. By this I mean that there is substantial decommissioning; it is more visible, or witnessed by persons trusted by the Unionist community; the wording of the IRAâ€™s commitment to abjure violence and crime is less Jesuitical and ambiguous; and the administration contains Sinn Fein members in less sensitive positions than justice, policing or education. Some-or all -of these targets are attainable even without tinkering with the architecture, as the UUP continually claim. But that argument merely exposes its own shortcomings. If youâ€™ve had three attempts at decorating the house and each one looks worse, your wife will call in the professionals, not let you try again.
The UUP has of course already come to an understanding with the IRA in November, which remains largely a secret, and which is obviously going to exert a major influence on the talks as it represents the SF/IRA negotiating position. For party political reasons, this understanding is being concealed, even though it must give Sinn Fein an advantage in the pending talks.
To demand a face-to-face meeting with the sick Ian Paisley as a prerequisite to inter-Unionist discussions, as David Trimble did recently, is one of the worst examples of shallow opportunism in a career littered with such petty stunts. It jeopardises the position of the entire Unionist family. It cannot be that the UUP are fearful that the DUP negotiators might make a better fist of things given the same material, can it?
Parties steal the policies of other parties all the time. The Tories rightly rail against neo-conservative Tony Blairâ€™s wholesale theft of their policies, but the electorate still rejects a party it believes is not ready to lead the country. How much more so would the Unionist people draw the logical conclusion, if the DUP were to move more towards the centre ground of Unionism?
When faced with a Jim Allister or a Jim Nicholson the middle classes preferred the thoroughbred to the donkey, as they did in North Belfast at the last General Election, and as they assuredly will again if Jeffrey Donaldson is challenged by Ivan Davis, or Gregory Campbell by David McClarty. The superior constituency service provided by the DUP has eaten into what remains of urban working class Unionism. There can hardly be more than one hundred UUP activists in Belfast, and fewer than a quarter of that in Londonderry.
The UUP is a party of elderly, exhausted and demoralised members, and has never dealt with the problem of what Dean Godsonâ€™s book termed â€œthe good ole boysâ€ who would have given bed-blocking a bad name even ten years ago It has lost its youth wing to the DUP, where bright young things are only to be faulted in their occasional enthusiasm to sink the boot into their former party instead of charitably ignoring it as the government has taken to doing. There is no right wing party ready to attack any outbreak of â€œpragmatismâ€ from the DUP talks team. There is no tension between the supposed wings of the DUP, although there may well be jockeying for places by senior figures for all I know-it would be a strange political party if there werenâ€™t.
The recent focus on, and flattery of, senior DUP figures, after years of studied disdain by media and governments, has also focussed the spotlight on the personalities and the differences in character have become more obvious. Yet there has been no dissident leaking concern or proposing an alternative strategy. The movements within the DUP are more like the nervous enthusiasm of a substitute warming up on the touchline and finally told heâ€™s to get on the pitch and turn the game. So even if the UUP had correctly detected a fundamental change in DUP policy, it would do them no good whatever if the DUP didnâ€™t split-and on that hope they must know that no party has a better track record of smothering dissent.
I do not believe that there is such a seismic shift in traditional Unionism. The DUP know that the Government is keen to apply pressure on them, firstly by manufacturing tensions to â€œdivide and conquerâ€, and secondly by wielding a stick. Hence the closure of Clogher Base, and the impending downgrading of Mahon Road RIR barracks, and the swinging cuts in the PSNI Reserve. There is a real danger that the Government will decide to attempt to puncture the newfound Unionist confidence by a series of blows designed to encourage the defeatist calls which these days pass for Ulster Unionist policy.
One aim of this tactic would be to accelerate the abstentionism in the Unionist electorate. Some in the UUP are so focussed on attacking the DUP that they are prepared to pay this price, no matter the consequences for the Union. Recall page 542 of Godsonâ€™s book and the request by David Trimble of Sir Ronnie Flanagan to speak to the GOC about unhelpful watchtowers in South Armagh if this seems unduly fanciful. It is interesting to note that, whereas once the UUP would adopt an attitude of lofty condescension to the DUP, now it seems their entire focus is on attacking fellow Unionists- and if they cry (as they do) that the DUP started it, they recognise implicitly that they can no longer assume that they are â€œthe natural party of governmentâ€, as I was told as recently as 2001 by one of the good ole boys.
I am convinced that there is a much more capable team of negotiators representing Unionism next week than hitherto, as Sir Reg Empey implicitly concedes when he says a much better deal could have been obtained in 1998 if the DUP had stayed in the talks. The presence of Jeffrey Donaldson means that there is at least one person familiar with the tactics used by the government-â€œpsy-opsâ€ (psychological warfare)-would not be too strong a term for how the NIO operated in 1998. Instead of one man making things up on the hoof-a guarantee for disaster- there will be proper strategic planning. The DUP has learned a lot about presentation, and is no longer simply in the business of saying â€œNoâ€, but it will still be capable of putting its foot down when required-and it will need to.
Too often the UUP seemed captivated with the intellect of a lecturer from a second rank provincial University, and believed-as I am sure he did himself (even sometimes correctly) â€“ that he was cleverer than all the Oxbridge-educated NIO and F & CO mandarins in the Government team, and the top diplomats in Iveagh House. That mistake will not be repeated. Even if there is no Trimble this time, there are also none of the placemen added to the team to make up the numbers or to keep opponents out. Having been one myself in 1996-8, that gives me particular encouragement. There will be no Cecil Walker type figure brought in at the death to fill a chair across a table when key issues are being considered.
If the DUP were able to negotiate a better deal the UUP would have nothing left to do, as increasingly it regards its function as attacking the DUP- a fault which they regularly attributed to the DUP when themselves in a position of dominance. This has the potential to be the most critical phase of the present political talks, and therefore the subterfuge, dishonesty, â€œ constructive ambiguityâ€-call it what you will- applied against the negotiators for Unionism can only increase.
If the DUP are stupid enough to repeat the mistakes of the UUP, having had such a ringside view of events in 1998, then the critics will be proven right, and the Union will be in grave danger. The truly amazing thing is that for some in Cunningham House that would be the best possible outcome. How are the mighty fallen!
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty