NI Talks break Kyoto protocol?

Well, not really. But Alex Kane argues that a low level but volumous series of diatribes between the UUP and DUP press offices, is a poor substitute for real political argument. The real issue is, he believes, is whether the DUP can cut a deal for Unionism at large. If they fail, he believes, there is no other political actor capable of ‘picking up the pieces’.By Alex Kane

A vaccine that prevents sheep from breaking wind has been developed by Australian scientists in an attempt to reduce global warming. In the first large-scale trials, two injections reduced flatulence and belching by about eight per cent. Gas from sheep, cattle, pigs and other farm animals accounts for about a quarter of the world’s emissions of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases.

And what, you may ask, has this environmental bulletin to do with us? Well, I would guess that about another quarter of the emissions can be traced to the Talks process in Northern Ireland, where the political equivalent of those farmyard animals have been grunting, belching and producing hot air for decades.

Indeed, the present willingness and ability of unionists to wallow in their own mess knows no bounds, as they continue to peck and flap like chickens on steroids. Hardly a day goes past without the same cabals using the same phrases to labour the same points. What we are seeing is not a genuine political debate (which is what is required), but rather, a battle between the UUP and DUP press offices. And, as this public farce continues, an ever-increasing number of pro-Union voters will continue the trend of just giving up on unionism and the unionist parties.

The Donaldson revelations, published in the News Letter this week, offer nothing new and simply muddy the waters. This column reported the would-be coup at the time and concluded that Sir Reg would choose not to rock the boat. It also predicted, over two years ago as it happens, that Jeffrey would never lead the UUP and would probably decamp to the DUP.

That aside, I have very grave reservations about “instant” biographies of key players in a political process which hasn’t been concluded. Self-justification and over hasty assessment inevitably seeps through the interviews. I also believe that this biography will actually damage Donaldson’s reputation, in much the same way that Trimble has been damaged by Dean Godson’s extremely readable biography. Both men should have resisted the temptation to become willing victims of this form of literary mummification.

Anyway, my own feeling is that unionism now stands on the edge of a cliff. The UUP has almost broken itself apart for the Belfast Agreement and, at this stage, has nothing to show for the risks. The DUP, on the other hand, is proving flexible — to the point of hypocrisy, some would argue – but may yet back away if the price to be paid for devolution seems too high.

Unionism needs devolution, for it gives it goals and purposes. Whatever the politically disengaged and non-voting pro-Union middle-classes may believe, Direct Rule is, in the long term, bad for Northern Ireland. David Trimble and Peter Robinson know it. The question is, can Robinson deliver where Trimble failed? The DUP may have bought into the reality of the Belfast Agreement, but will its electorate buy into the concessions and assorted U-turns which will be required of them in exchange for power-sharing with Sinn Fein?

The price which unionism will pay for the DUP’s failure to cut a deal will be enormous, for there is no other pro-Union party capable of picking up the pieces in the near future. So now is not the time for the Punch and Judy clash between the UUP and DUP. Now is the time for both parties to face hard choices and take tough decisions.

First published in the Newsletter, Saturday 2nd October 2004