Double-bluff?.. or a lack of foresight?

The Irish Times’ Frank Millar has a closer look at the joint statement from Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the subsequent clarification from Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland Peter Hain. Frank Millar’s interpretation seems to echo that of the Belfast Telegraph’s Brian Walker [although the emphasis is different] and he highlights that with the mixed messages coming from the governments on how they envisage moving beyond that November 24th deadline, “After all the hype, the only certainty is that nothing has changed yet.”From today’s Irish Times[subs req]

That said, the DUP now appears content that the famous “pendulum” has already begun to swing back. Indeed, the process of retreat may have begun almost as soon as Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern took to the podium last Thursday, for it was instantly clear that the prime minister had got the tone badly wrong.

In his scripted remarks Blair might have sounded even-handed, telling the DUP and Sinn Féin what each must do to recognise and engender confidence in the other.

However, it was “Plan B” as defined in the communiqué which suggested that the prime minister had already made his judgment, that Sinn Féin would find it next-to-impossible to fail the test, and that in reality the DUP was considered the only real obstacle to progress.

It is difficult to see how else the parties were intended to read the threat: “If restoration of the Assembly and Executive has to be deferred, the governments agree this will have immediate implications for their joint stewardship of the process.

“We are beginning detailed work on British-Irish partnership arrangements that will be necessary in these circumstances to ensure that the Good Friday agreement, which is the indispensable framework for relations on and between these islands, is actively developed across its structures and functions.

“This work will be shaped by the commitment of both governments to a step-change in advancing North-South co-operation and action for the benefit of all.”

The BBC’s Northern Ireland political editor Mark Devenport got it in one, asking Blair what impact he thought this threat might have on loyalists – and why Sinn Féin should co-operate when the promised outcome would be roughly what republicans wanted anyway.

And it seems that, if they hadn’t understood it well enough in advance, Number 10 also quickly got the point. Within 24 hours senior Whitehall sources were explaining in effect that there was an element of double-bluff at work here. When asked why there was only “punishment” planned for the unionists, the sources told The Irish Times the initiative was predicated on the belief that Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams wants the Executive reinstated, and that “nobody is suggesting any massive extension of Anglo-Irish co-operation”.

The implication was that Adams knew this – in which case he would not have been surprised by Secretary of State Peter Hain’s subsequent assurance to unionists that nobody was talking about anything like “joint authority”, which he observed would be a breach of the Belfast Agreement.

The DUP will also have benefited from the keen insight of David Trimble, who pointed to the contradiction at the core of the British-Irish communiqué with its assertion that the Good Friday accord remains “the indispensable framework for relations on and between these islands”. As the former UUP leader remarked, the governments’ Plan B prescription for bilateral co-operation might signal a reversal to an Anglo-Irish Agreement Mark II – but it would not be compatible with the multi-party agreement of 1998, which has at its core an inclusive political settlement within Northern Ireland.

And there was a further encouragement for the DUP when President Bush called on all sides to demonstrate leadership and seize the opportunity to work together. His press secretary said, the president urged “full support for civilian policing throughout Northern Ireland and an unequivocal commitment to the rule of law and the renunciation of all paramilitary and criminal activities.”

Blair had little to say on this subject last Thursday. But we can expect to hear more in the months ahead as the DUP and Sinn Féin continue their battle to determine the shape and pace of the agenda. After all the hype, the only certainty is that nothing has changed yet.