DUP in cross-community power-sharing shocker…

IT went largely unnoticed that while the new DUP Lord Mayor of Belfast, Wallace Browne, was indeed elected with cross-community support, it was (I am pretty sure) the first time ever that both a Lord Mayor and Deputy Lord Mayor were elected with cross-community support. This was testing new waters for the DUP and SDLP, as they supported each other’s candidate – and there were some rather nervous councillors who voted last week in a way they never had before. From the DUP’s perspective, it was certainly worth the minimal risk to vote for a nationalist Deputy Lord Mayor for the first time…What might have damaged the DUP in the past, won’t now. The DUP is in a position of strength after the recent council elections, and it’s only real critic could have been the UUP – who are severely weakened in City Hall.

Mayoral elections are significantly dictated by wider events. It’s a fact of political life here. So I doubt if this small-but-positive DUP gesture was made for completely altruistic reasons. Nevertheless, it’s a little bit of visible political progress.

As far as contenders for the Belfast mayoralty were are concerned, Sinn Fein are still in every other party’s doghouse and were never really in line for the top two posts, post-Northern and McCartney. And Joe O’Donnell has just stepped down as Deputy Lord Mayor. There was no deal to exclude them. In fact, I am not aware of any deals having been made. There was no need.

As the largest party, the DUP obviously felt entitled to the top post. The party’s last Lord Mayor was Sammy Wilson between 2000 and 2001.

After their electoral humiliation – losing four seats in the Dome of Delight alone – the UUP were in no position to demand (or give) anything to anyone.

How on earth could any party possibly do a deal with a party that even split down the middle on the big night, with four UUP councillors not voting for the SDLP Deputy Mayor, Pat Convery, and four voting for him? I understand that Fred Cobain was the first UUP councillor to record a positive vote for Convery, perhaps shaming the others who voted after him to take his lead.

We can probably expect more split UUP votes in the future, if Fred’s conscience continues to niggle. I can’t see how UPRG member Frank McCoubrey – who takes the UUP whip (and isn’t Fred the group whip?) – can possibly agree with everything the UUP might do in future. No-one seems to have noticed that the UUP group in Belfast City Council is in exactly the same position as Sinn Fein on the other side of the chamber.

Dealing with a group in disarray might present other parties with a problem – since half the UUP group appears not to be taking the whip on crucial votes – but so might dealing with an official body that includes someone who provides political advice to the UDA. Even the DUP aren’t on the cringeworthy Loyalist Commission*. But gone are those halcyon days of post-Agreement UUP bonhomie with others of a similar disposition. Even if the UUP say it’s going to do something these days or vote a certain way, you always wonder if it can actually deliver.

Anyway, the Belfast mayoral field was narrow, and in terms of mandate and just getting a fair turn, the DUP clearly had the biggest claim.

Alliance, who hold the balance of power, announced it’s kingmaking decision in advance, after holding meetings with the other parties. Coincidentally, the only other Lord Mayor elected with cross-community support previously was David Alderdice, no longer of Belfast. David was also leader of the group when Alliance voted Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey into the Lord Mayor’s chair in 2002. Such rare cross-community votes always seem to revolve around Alliance.

Could it be though that the DUP has used the opportunity to its advantage?

Nationalist criticism of the DUP has centred on its inability to share power in the Assembly (and elsewhere), and there have been many calls from nationalist quarters for the DUP to demonstrate its ‘powersharing credentials’ in the councils across Northern Ireland.

So the DUP did. Sort of.

I mean in its own terms, of course. So Sinn Fein is still obviously out. But by voting for an SDLP Deputy Lord Mayor, they passed Durkan’s democratic ‘acid test’ in Belfast, though possibly not in Castlereagh.

But since Alliance had the greatest claim to something (anything, quite frankly) in Castlereagh, having been the greater victim of past DUP exclusion in terms of posts, this was perhaps a sensible move by the DUP. Certainly Geraldine Rice deserved the Deputy Mayoralty in Castlereagh; Alliance has received only one other deputy mayorship in 25 years, and Sinn Fein used to quote the party’s unjustifiable exclusion in Castlereagh in previous years as an example of DUP inability to share power.

So the DUP can afford to be seen to be generous – but not too generous. It puts forward a moderate (relatively speaking) candidate in Belfast. It gets a chance to show that it will share power with – and even (gasp) VOTE for – Catholics and nationalists not, in its eyes, in parties linked to armed groups. In short, it will be entering the inevitable next round of talks with a wee carrot to show Tony. Yet this is still power sharing on DUP terms – ie, to Sinn Fein’s exclusion. The DUP is saying that it will share power with constitutional Irish nationalism, but not – until the IRA has shown the DUP its bona fides – with Sinn Fein. That’s pretty much everyone else’s position too.

One of Blair’s two conditions for getting devolution back on track is that unionism must be prepared to share power. Even if the IRA doesn’t jump far enough for it, the DUP will hold up these councils as examples of good faith. Maybe they’ll even get a couple of sweeteners along the way; more seats on the Policing Board possibly or perhaps Andrew Hunter will get a seat in the Lords. The DUP wants more accountable direct rule, but I can’t imagine much being given by Hain there, who sees it as a non-starter. Relations got off to a frosty start, as usual. Can’t see Paisley having been impressed by Hain’s political pedigree either.

If the DUP is to ever learn that it should stay inside the process, some reciprocation from the Government may well help bind it further into the whole shebang. As Sinn Fein have found out, it becomes harder to walk away from the table if you can visibly demonstrate symbolic or real gains. If politics is about give and take, the DUP will seek its own ‘concessions’, as no doubt every party does when it deals with the Government.

The DUP is ‘doing’ real politics these days. It’s not standing outside like it used to. But how far is it prepared to compromise if the IRA’s expected statement or action after its ‘internal consultation’ doesn’t go far enough, as expected? Exactly how high is the bar – and will the two governments continue to hold it as far up as the DUP? As we revealed first on Slugger, even the US is taking a harder line on republicans right now. But how long do we have to wait for the DUP to be convinced that the IRA is inactive? Waiting games in Northern Ireland rarely continue long without the intervention of damaging events.

In the past, political vacuums have eventually given way to violence. The summer omens haven’t been particularly great this year. This current hiatus has been on the cards since Christmas, but if talks are to start in the autumn, groundwork needs to be done now.

* Can we use the other thread to debate Ulster Resistance etc? Cheers.