DUP needs to suffer loss of face

Danny Morrison argues in today’s Daily Ireland that whilst Republicans are not happy about the potential long term suspension of the local institutions, neither are they panicking to have them back. He takes the view that what he sees as the DUP’s intransigence, should be dealt with by a hardening of government attitudes and that it “needs to be chastened, [and] needs to suffer a massive loss of face”.By Danny Morrison:

The threat by Peter Hain to dissolve the suspended assembly and cease paying salaries and allowances to MLAs has been met with anger, concern and scorn by most of the parties with the exception of Sinn Fein.

It agreed that while it was untenable to keep paying assembly representatives when there is no assembly what the British government should do is immediately lift its unilateral suspension of the institutions which would put pressure on unionists to engage.

In December Hain said that there would need to be real progress between the parties (that is, the DUP and Sinn Fein) if assembly elections, which are due in 2007, are to have any meaning. However, he toughened his stance in an interview at the weekend on BBC Radio Ulster.

“If we haven’t seen progress by the summer,” he said, “the first decision I’m going to have to make is over continued payment of salaries and also allowances.”

Before October 2002 MLAs received an annual salary of £41,321 – reduced to £31,817 after suspension. Assembly office expenses and allowances (excluding travel expenses which in the year prior to suspension amounted to £605,893 in total) stand at a maximum of £48,000 for those re-elected in 2003 and at £15,000 for those elected for the first time.

No wonder there were so many rival contestants at party conventions and hundreds of candidates jockeying for the 108 seats. No wonder the various parties – none of which, bar the DUP, have been responsible for the deadlock – feel so aggrieved at being laid off.

When Hain referred to assembly members getting “£32,000 salaries… to do a job which they won’t take responsibility for doing” he was making an increasingly popular criticism. However, he should have singled out the DUP and specified what the British government is going to do about the intransigence of that party.

North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds dismissed Hain’s threat as cutting no ice with the DUP.

“We don’t need any lecture in the principles of democracy from Peter Hain,” said Dodds. “So, if he actually thinks that threatening some financial sanction is going to make our party cuddle up to Sinn Fein then he has another think coming.”

Ian Paisley Junior added, “There is no appetite within the unionist community for a power-sharing executive with Sinn Fein and the DUP.”

Peter Robinson said, “It has been the blind obsession of trying to preserve and retain the unworkable Belfast Agreement that has caused deadlock.”

All of this is further evidence that for the foreseeable future the DUP will not share power with Sinn Fein, if, indeed, it ever does whilst Ian Paisley is the leader.

The DUP certainly wants an end to direct rule and wants an assembly restored but isn’t prepared to pay the price of power-sharing with the representatives of the nationalist community. It knows that the British and Irish governments invested considerable time, effort and credibility in drafting the Belfast Agreement and it is gambling that they are unlikely to dissolve the suspended assembly – as Hain has threatened – because that suggests defeat.

But listen to how squeaky and pathetic this challenge from Ian Paisley Junior actually sounds:

“If Peter Hain is a man of his word and delivers on his latest threat to end the Assembly altogether, he will be responsible for removing every aspect of the failed past initiative of the Belfast Agreement. He will simultaneously vindicate DUP policy and ensure direct rule becomes the only game in town.”

So, the DUP is exploiting the reluctance of the two governments to concede that all of its efforts have come to nought and is trading on its eligibility as the prime partner in a coalition to extract concessions from the British government. But DUP representatives have so proudly painted the party into such an uncompromising position that it actually has no room for manoeuvre, without a massive loss of face.

The DUP needs to be chastened, needs to suffer a massive loss of face, and republicans should not balk at inflicting it on them by supporting the dissolution of the Assembly.

Given that the main source of the DUP’s power is that the governments and the other parties want to see the institutions restored and the DUP knows that without its participation there will be no institutions it may well be that the only way to force the DUP to rethink its position is to deny it its veto.

Is the dissolution of the Assembly that frightening a prospect? Remember all the twists and turns, ups and downs, expectations and disappointments there have been since the IRA cessation was called in August 1994! We haven’t had power-sharing for three years; in fact, over a period of eight years we only had it for a matter of months.

What intransigent unionists need to understand is that republicans never wanted a northern assembly to begin with. Republicans compromised and agreed to enter and work an assembly on behalf of their constituents and as part of their strategy to break down partition, but also as acknowledging unionist sensibilities and offering them the hand of friendship. That has never been reciprocated. Unionists continually demand the IRA apologise for its past, without ever conceding their contribution to the outbreak of the conflict.

So, let the DUP carry the can for the ills of direct rule. Let it understand that there is a penalty to be paid for denying the nationalist people their democratic rights.

Some will argue that direct rule will lead to a political vacuum. We already have a political vacuum. Some might argue that it will be filled with violence. Why should it? Conditions have changed. There is no need for armed struggle. Nationalist confidence grows by the day. Republicans survived repression under decades of direct rule and can certainly thrive politically, especially given their proven tenacity and creativity. They have many projects across the island. In the restructured local government councils they will be able to lead by example; and in the South there is a massive challenge: all of which means that the party need never be idle.

Would the dissolution of the Assembly mean the end of the Belfast Agreement and victory for the DUP? Certainly not. In fact, with the DUP’s negative bargaining power neutralised the two governments should be able to more easily introduce change. There are many outstanding aspects of the Agreement to be implemented which do not rely on devolution (though Sinn Fein recognising the PSNI appears to be conditional on the devolution of policing and justice powers to an assembly.)

If and when the DUP grow up and become democrats I am sure Sinn Fein will be accommodating when it comes asking for a power-sharing executive.

As an Irish republican all British rule – including direct rule – is anathema. What makes it bearable is that in the ultimate scheme of things it is transitory and power will eventually be transferred to the people.

First published in Daily Ireland on Wednesday 12th January 2006

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty