This will no doubt have Andrew at A Tangled Web fuming this morning. In yesterday’s column, Brian Feeney taunts the DUP with that perennial old chestnut that it simply doesn’t want to share power. He also argues that it has nowhere left to go.It’s a safe line for any nationalist commentator to take, as although the DUP may have de facto shared power with Catholics in Stormont, they have not yet been privy to any deal that publicly legitimises powersharing. The DUP-led Castlereagh Council’s apparent unwillingness to share power provides a ready barometer for those sceptical of the party’s new liberal credentials.
And Feeney knows the party’s fundamentalist ‘wing’ well enough from first hand experience. Until 1993 he was a senior member of the SDLP and Belfast City Councillor for Ardoyne. However it is not clear that the cracks in the DUP that Feeney mentions, are as quite as visible or fundamental as he suggests.
Indeed much of the public reading of the party and its intentions has been seriously off beam for quite some time now. That’s partly because for years much of the media considered the party beyond the pale of political respectability and, especially after the 1998 referendum, largely irrelevant. In fact, very few observers have gotten close enough to fully apprehend the reality of the party’s inner political life.
On paper at least, the DUP is not the same party it was when Feeney faced them across the council chamber. Reading its public statements of principle and, perhaps more importantly, the detailed policy documents – it commits to striking a deal on devolution that is primarily acceptable to Unionists as well as Nationalists. Something that would have seemed unimaginable only ten years ago.
In the absence of a deal, all of this will seem little more than window-dressing to nationalists. But the hard truth is, that in the absence of IRA decommissioning, the DUP’s position will be viewed as both safe and respectable within the wider unionist constituency.
Unionism has travelled a long and arduous road since Fionnuala O’Connor, accurately reported “Now it is unionism that is fragmented and demoralised, while Catholics, although still divided, increasingly show a confidence many Protestants struggle to come to terms with”, back in 1993. Indeed, the very contemporary absence of division and rancour is highly conspicuous.
With Sinn Fein’s senior position within nationalism looking just as unassailable, both the British and Irish governments will struggle to provide any answers to Feeney’s rhetorical questions and overcome the current inertia.