The challenge to Unionists over the next four months

Alex Kane ruminates on the innate challenges of the next four months in the interrim before the two IMC reorts delegated to adjudicate on the integrity of the IRA ceasefire are published. The DUP has to seriously consider the political choices that face it: namely an imperfect situation with devolution; or ongoing powerlessness under direct rule. The UUP must invest the time in re-connecting with the party’s grass roots.By Alex Kane

Being an atheist I tend to the view that clergy have a professional obligation to believe in something that they can’t easily prove to non-believers. So in that sense they strike me as ideal witnesses for an act of decommissioning. I don’t doubt their integrity, but I do question their credibility. Their mission last Monday was simply to bear witness to the fact that an act of decommissioning took place; but they certainly can’t confirm that the act represented total decommissioning and nor can they affirm that the act should be interpreted as a final and absolute renunciation of the IRA’s “armed struggle.”

But truth told it wasn’t the integrity or credibility of the witnesses that really concerned the DUP. It was the fact that an obviously substantial—and possibly total—act of decommissioning took place at all. Remember this comment from Peter Robinson; “It is very clear that they have no intention of decommissioning. The people realise it and we realise it in this House.”? Or this from Nigel Dodds; “Will the First Minister accept that the IRA/Sinn Fein movement has no intention of decommissioning. Will he now apologise to the Assembly and to the people of Northern Ireland for so grossly deceiving them”? Or even this from Ian Paisley; “The IRA will never decommission.”?

The DUP has found it impossible to welcome the decommissioning, because the DUP hasn’t got a clue how to behave in a political environment in which the rest of the world believes that the IRA really has gone away. Let’s be honest, this is nightmare territory for the DUP. Sinn Fein has bought into partition and the IRA has crossed its decommissioning Rubicon. The pressure on the party to recognise “this new attitude within republicanism,” and cut a quick deal to restore devolution, will be relentless and intense.

That pressure started ten days ago, with a speech from Peter Hain (which I wrote about last week), and continued with a follow-up performance at the Labour Party Conference, where he announced that his NIO team, in the continuing absence of devolution, will introduce a “radical agenda.” In essence both speeches were a clear threat to the DUP; take power into your own hands at local level and provide your own solutions, or the NIO will do it for you.

So what does the DUP do? A significant section of its core vote doesn’t want to share power with Sinn Fein under any circumstances and the party must avoid the sort of internal showdown between the pragmatists and the fundamentalists, which almost destroyed the Ulster Unionists. Yet it also has to be seen to start delivering for a unionist community it now claims to lead. Some DUP strategists argue that its voters would prefer Direct Rule to Sinn Fein in government; but I suspect that those voters will feel differently if Direct Rule now brings water tax, school closures, an overhaul of local government and higher rates all round. The DUP cannot afford to be seen to be abdicating its devolutionist responsibilities in those circumstances.

Messrs Paisley and Robinson have a simple calculation to make: how much do they need devolution, what price will they pay for it and what will the consequences be if they refuse to negotiate with Sinn Fein? My instinct is that the party will move into direct talks much more quickly than most people imagine. They have already prepared their agenda for negotiations (over fifty pages of concerns and issues they want addressed) and will seek the promise of an Assembly election to ratify the new deal. Put bluntly, the DUP will pay the required price to kickstart the Assembly.

The UUP, in turn, has to play a canny game. It needs the DUP to cut a deal with Sinn Fein, because if it doesn’t, then I don’t believe that a deal will be cut by anyone. So the UUP needs to be cautious. Since nothing much will happen before an IMC report next January, it should use the time to re-energise its grassroots and shore-up its internal structures; whilst maintaining a watching brief on the bigger political picture and bringing fresh faces and new thinking to the talks table.

Unionism, all of it, faces its greatest challenge ever. An editorial in Tuesday’s Times noted; “Unionism will seem implausible if it fails to react rationally. It will also render itself irrelevant…It has to deal with reality. It must now come in from a very bitter cold.” The two unionist parties must display courage, radicalism, vision and statesmanship. The DUP has failed to display any of those qualities in the last few days. In its first real test as the majority voice of unionism it has reacted irrationally and returned to its negative and bombastic roots.

The political landscape has been overturned in this past week and unionism, particularly that wing represented by the DUP, has been seriously wrong-footed. The endgame of this process will be determined by who wins the propaganda war. The unionist parties really have to get their act together, for their electorate is looking for action, as opposed to mere and entirely predictable reaction.

First published in The Newsletter on Saturday 30th September