DUP should cut out the middle man…

Alex Kane with what has to be a somewhat tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the DUP should seek to talk directly with the IRA Army Council – and insist upon a direct response to their demands for the Republican movement to recognise and adhere to the state’s monopoly of force rather than going through the Sinn Fein leadership.The prospect of Peter Robinson slow-dancing with, let alone snogging Gerry Adams, in the ballroom of Leeds Castle next week, is not one which either man, or their supporters, would welcome. Yet that, in essence, is the sort of finale towards which the clumsily choreographed talks process is being directed by the British and Irish governments.

In a carefully crafted speech to the Irish Republic’s Small Firms Association last week—indeed, the sort of speech that David Trimble was making seven years ago–Mr. Robinson made a number of interesting comments: “Only time will tell the extent of the progress that will be made, but I believe that the ingredients are in place, if all parties are willing to embrace entirely peaceful and democratic means…” “If, however, shared practical advantages flow that profit those involved, then my party will drive co-operation forward with enthusiasm and vigour.”

Mr. Adams was not as upbeat, complaining that the DUP hadn’t even spoken to Sinn Fein, and “in fact, don’t appear to be contemplating talking to Sinn Fein until some time very late next year.”

But for all of Mr. Robinson’s genuine or manufactured optimism, he finds himself on precisely the same hook upon which the UUP hung between April 10th,1998 and October 21st, 2003. When he says, “Either republicans commit to exclusively peaceful and democratic means or they will have no place in government,” he is also acknowledging (given that Tony Blair will never unambiguously side with unionists against Sinn Fein) that there will probably be no place in government for the DUP, either.

My own instinct is that Sinn Fein will not sign up to an Assembly without an Executive, so, in effect, both the DUP’s corporate model and the UUP alternatives being flagged up by Sir Reg Empey, will, almost certainly, prove to be non-runners. Unless, of course, Mr. Blair faces down SF/IRA and supports a Plan B which either excludes or minimizes Sinn Fein’s presence. And who amongst you would bet on such an outcome?

Sometimes in politics it is better to cut to the chase and deal with the real root of a problem. In this case that would mean a willingness of the DUP to agree to a face-to-face meeting with the IRA Army Council. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness insist that Sinn Fein does not speak for the IRA, so even if the DUP met Sinn Fein it still wouldn’t answer a number of very important questions.

The DUP has nothing to lose by offering to meet the Army Council. Indeed, such an offer would represent a huge propaganda coup and place enormous pressure on republicans to respond positively. The high moral ground is often the loneliest place in a political process and the DUP no longer has the luxury of being able to pretend that it doesn’t have to deal with republicanism in both its armed and ballot-box manifestations.

The DUP has come a very long way since 1998, most of the journey having been travelled since last November. It must not, at this stage, be afraid to complete the journey. Courage is the real test of leadership. David Trimble has never lacked it. What will future biographers say of Robinson?

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 11th September 2004