Analysis: Are the SDLP the new DUP..?

AS the latest round of political talks to restore devolution fall apart acrimoniously, the parties begin the blame game. SDLP and Sinn Fein fingers are pointing at the DUP, who have returned the favour – though only in the direction of the SDLP.In Martin McGuinness’s statement yesterday, and Conor Murphy’s last night to camera in Parliament Buildings, Sinn Féin has consistently emphasised that “the core principles of the Agreement including power sharing and the All Ireland architecture cannot be undermined”.

In his statement, the SDLP leader Mark Durkan said: “Nationalists know the fundamentals of the Agreement. The SDLP is holding to them. We are engaging as constructively and creatively as we can with the DUP. What we will not do is ditch or dump the Agreement’s fundamentals.”

He continues: “The joint election of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is a fundamental part of the Agreement. Scrapping this requirement is really about saving the DUP’s face and sparing them the embarrassment of having to vote for a Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister.

“The joint election is a fundamental part of the Agreement. Other parties may willing to concede this principle – the SDLP will not.”

This jars with what Durkan said on camera last night in Stormont, where he said that the Agreement could not be changed, full stop. This is very different from saying that the principles cannot be changed. On that point, all parties seem to agree.

Nevertheless, the SDLP’s definition of the fundamentals are different from the British Government’s, which Tony Blair defined in an address at the Odyssey Arena, Belfast on 13 December 2000.

Blair said: “And that Good Friday agreement is still the way forward, the only way forward. Because the principles at the heart of it, whatever the difficulties in implementing them, the principles at the heart of it are the right principles. The principle of consent; the principle of devolution and power-sharing; the principles of justice and equality and recognition of different identities; the principle that whatever our differences, whatever the problems within communities, those differences should only be resolved – only ever be resolved by peaceful and democratic and non-violent means.”

We should add north-south structures to that, and we can argue over semantics, but it is clear from Blair’s words that something as specific as the joint election of a First and Deputy First Minister is not one of the fundamental principles of the Agreement. Power-sharing is, but the SDLP’s idea of sharing power is more symbolic than real, as the frosty relationship between David Trimble and Seamus Mallon demonstrated.

If the UUP/SDLP joint office of OFM/DFM was intended to show power-sharing in operation, it clearly failed. A cynic might question last week’s new-found enthusiasm in the UUP for the ‘jointery’ of the office – which existed largely in name only, in an Office where decision making was often straitjacketed by their inability to agree on a joint position.

One idea being knocked about over the past few days was that instead of voting for the First and Deputy First Ministers followed by the appointment of the other 10 Ministers using the d’Hondt mechanism, d’Hondt would be triggered to appoint the FM and DFM and run on in the usual way for the rest of the Executive. The Assembly would then vote on a cross-community basis for the 12 Ministers as a package.

The SDLP has claimed this is a fig leaf for the DUP, who could claim that they did not vote for a Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister. Another way of looking at it, is that Martin McGuinness could not be Deputy First Minister unless the DUP approved, as its voting strength on the floor of the house could allow it to prevent ratification.

Neither has the SDLP recognised that a vote for a team of Ministers from the four largest parties as a complete package could improve collective responsibility in the Executive – ‘mega-jointery’, if you will. If this is the fig leaf for the DUP that turns out to improve how the Executive runs, is the SDLP fighting the right battle?

Robinson has already asked why the SDLP couldn’t bring itself to vote for someone as middle-of-the-road as John (now Lord) Alderdice as Speaker, yet expect the DUP to vote directly for a Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister. Certain unionists might also turn around and ask how much political cover the SDLP has provided Sinn Féin with during the peace process, even at its own expense.

As Durkan’s statement above shows, the SDLP has refused to endorse this arrangement for electing an FM and DFM, because it believes that the joint election is a fundamental part of the Agreement. It is not, according to any definition I have ever seen, and it is a little late to start arguing this point. Last night, Robinson said that both he and the British Government agreed what the principles of the Agreement were, although Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy has now also accused the DUP of attempting to undermine those principles – albeit with a better understanding than the SDLP of what these are.

His statement must be seen in the context of the SDLP trying to position itself as the sole defender of the Agreement and that is a perception SF could not permit, even if the republican party could prove flexible on mechanisms, if not principles.

The bottom line is that it looks as though Sinn Féin may be prepared to accept changes to the operations of the Agreement that the SDLP will not, so long as those changes are within the Agreement’s principles.

It is unsurprising that the SDLP and UUP would want the DUP to get into the First Minister’s chair without suffering less political ‘pain’ than they did. This is why the UUP is keen to remind the DUP that it is now their responsibility to remove ‘concessions’.

Like Alex Kane, both have a good point when they say that the DUP should negotiate directly with Sinn Fein (or even with the near-defunct IRA), if they do not trust the otherwise necessary intermediary – the British Government. In practical terms of negotiating a deal, it would be much better for the DUP to deal with SF than trying to deal with an SDLP determined to be seen to be taking a harder line than Sinn Féin itself, possibly for electoral reasons, but probably because it sees itself as the main architect of the Agreement – John Hume’s vision must remain undiluted. The UUP is in a similar position, and has attacked the DUP for what it sees as an erosion of the unionist veto on the North South Ministerial Council.

The result of the power shift in the Assembly means that moderate tribes and extremist camps are swiftly reversing roles, with the DUP and Sinn Fein now having to look over their shoulders at their respective electoral rivals.

The space for negotiation is between the DUP and Sinn Féin, yet because of the DUP’s refusal to talk to ‘armed’ republicanism and the SDLP’s need to ‘out-green’ Sinn Féin, that space has not been created. Likewise, negotiating by proxy will leave the DUP always wondering if Sinn Féin are serious about a deal, and vice versa. Trimble eyeballed Adams, but then balked when the IRA statement he wanted turned out to be less than what he imagined. The SUP may be recent converts to negotiation and power sharing, but one cannot imagine a prearranged choreography between them and a subtly flexible Sinn Fein falling apart in such a fashion.

There is a lack of trust, and when nationalists look at how they are treated elsewhere, who can blame them for wondering why the DUP are now willing to share power in the Assembly, but not on some district councils – particularly when DUP’s corporate model for an Assembly was partly based on how councils operated.

Robinson also accused the SDLP of making life more difficult for Sinn Féin last night, but for as long as he refuses to negotiate directly with ‘armed’ republicanism, the SDLP can maintain the barrier between the two extremes and ensure SF remains wedded to being resistant to changes they might otherwise consider.

The DUP’s regular use of the ‘armed’ prefix suggests that verifiable decommissioning might lead to direct talks with SF. But since this is unlikely to happen in the absence of a DUP commitment to stability, which can’t happen until changes to the operations of the institutions are nailed down, it remains a pipe dream.

The form of consociational ‘power-sharing’ the SDLP advocates is not genuine power-sharing, where there is meaningful collective responsibility in the Executive. How can unilateral Ministerial decisions where the opinion of other Ministers, the Minister’s committee and the Assembly as a while possibly be described as power sharing in any sense? It could be more accurately be described as ‘power division’, or in the DUP’s view, power distribution.

There does seem to be a noticeable shift in the DUP’s approach. Contrast Robinson’s press conferences of late with those of even the recent past – he sounds like he has been taking lessons from the Sinn Féin press office on playing the victim. The tone, the attitude, the style, the language; all have changed significantly. So when Robinson said on Tuesday that “[W]e had agreed with the Government that the fundamentals of the Belfast Agreement that they outlined were consistent with the fundamentals that the DUP had put forward for a way forward”, Sir Reg Empey was quick to pounce. He said: This is a seismic shift in position from what the DUP told electorate prior to, during and immediately after the Assembly Election. We never heard any statement from the DUP that indicated any consistency between the Agreement and the DUP position. I thought that they were pledged to ‘tear it up and destroy it’.”

But has the substance? Is this New DUP reasonable, or is it only the appearance of ‘reasonableness’? There does seem to be a much greater degree of willingness right now by the DUP to take matters forward, although they will have to accept it cannot always be on their own terms, massive mandate or not.

One suspects that if legitimate concerns over ministerial accountability and the election of First and Deputy First Ministers can be addressed fairly, the DUP’s true intentions will become clearer. Are they serious about a deal, or are they stalling until after the Westminster elections, when they will inevitably take UUP seats? They certainly cannot be threatened with Assembly elections, since they could easily claim to their malleable electorate that they withstood the pressure to make a deal as their mandate dictated.

Could the DUP really abandon devolution and possibly an incredible prize for them that the UUP could not deliver – an end to the IRA – for technical changes to institutional arrangements that few really understand the mechanics of? How would they explain that?

This is perhaps the Achilles heel that Sir Reg was exploring when he stated: “Many of the proposed changes are technical, and can be lost on most people. Indeed some of the proposers of these changes don’t seem to have a grasp of the implications.”

But if they are flushed out and found wanting, the chances of reaching an acceptable resolution will rapidly disappear.

In fact, the process may be already unravelling.