This piece by Alex Kane has been awaiting posting for nearly a fortnight. But it’s interesting in light of some of the discussion that’s taken place since then. He cautions those within the DUP who may be considering an integrationist approach to think again. The choice facing unionists is not pleasant, but in essence they need to grasp an unpleasant nettle in the short term if it is to avoid being stung in the longer term.By Alex Kane:
Was anyone actually surprised by the news that the proposed take-it-or-leave-it road map has been put on hold? To be honest, the governments may as well prepare a buried treasure map and stick a big X in the middle of the paper. The sight of Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, yo-ho-hoing, earrings dangling and cutlasses waving, couldn’t be much sillier than the antics we have had to endure since November 2003.
This column has argued for the past three years that Sinn Fein will not agree to a shadow Assembly and that the SDLP will never buy into a measure, however temporary, that excludes Sinn Fein. I haven’t shifted from that opinion and nor have Adams and Durkan. A take-it-or-leave-it approach by the Prime Ministers will simply result in a unionist “take it” and a nationalist “leave it,” or vice versa. Mind you, such an outcome would give both governments the cover they need to mothball the Assembly and formally move on to Plan B; seven new councils at Provincial level and full-blooded joint sovereignty at British-Irish level.
Interestingly enough, there are signals that certain elements within the DUP are now prepared to abandon devolution and move on to integrationist territory. Speaking to the party’s association at Queen’s University, MEP Jim Allister said this: “Generically, devolution is desirable, but not essential. In Belfast Agreement form it is patently unacceptable, inherently unstable and destructive of unionist interests…If there is to be devolution then, it must be on a fresh and radically different basis…If others aren’t interested in securing durable and workable devolution, then we as a party should signal we’re moving on. We can devote all our energy to better integrating Northern Ireland within the UK and with an uncertain government majority in place and maybe a hung Parliament again in prospect, opportunity beckons.”
This is important stuff, because if I were a betting man I would place a considerable sum of money on either Allister or Nigel Dodds being the DUP’s next leader. If Jim is prepared to trot out this line of thought, then you can bet your bottom dollar that it is an opinion that is widely shared throughout the ranks. I have no doubt that key figures, including Ian Paisley Jnr (and probably the Big Man himself) share this analysis. Putting it bluntly, Jim Allister would not have made this speech without consulting an influential circle within the party.
But let me urge some caution. Unionism has been down this road before. In the period between 1975 and 1979, former UUP leader James Molyneaux was reputed to have a reasonably cosy relationship with Mrs. Thatcher (then leader of the opposition). Yet, when she became Prime Minister, she embarked upon a series of policy and inter-governmental initiatives, which undermined the Union and isolated unionism. Again, in 1992, when John Major needed—and was given—UUP support to help him counter his Maastricht rebels, it didn’t prevent him from later humiliating Mr. Molyneaux with the Downing Street Declaration.
Jim Allister may imagine that the DUP’s Parliamentary strength allows them to play big-boy politics with the Conservative and Labour parties. And I have no doubt that a Prime Minister who needs votes anywhere he can get them, and a Conservative leader who wants to inflict damage on the government, will both be willing to flatter the DUP Parliamentary Party. But neither Tony Blair (let alone Gordon Brown) nor David Cameron will entertain the idea of integrationism.
The problem for the DUP is that it has left itself with little room for manoeuvre. If it agrees to talk, it will look like it has blinked first. If it decides to walk, it risks the collapse of everything. If it tries to remain put, then there is the likelihood that the Secretary of State will pour concrete around its feet. Integration is neither an available nor a viable option at this stage and the DUP should be very careful about soaring too high on the paper wings of its supposed influence in London.
In some senses there is an element of truth in the claim that the only form of devolution available to us is undesirable. But if the choice is between undesirable devolution, and undesirable direct rule, then perhaps the DUP should concentrate on authentic mammon rather than a bogus utopia.
First published in the Newsletter Saturday 4th March 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