Lots of talk and consequences for everyone but Sinn Fein

According to Alex Kane, the message coming from the two governments last week it is time for the two main parties to deal with each other. But he notes the financial penalties arising from any future collapse are likely to affect everyone, except “IRA-bankrolled Sinn Fein”. Indeed, last night’s documentary on Trimble pretty much repeated the view that the IRA’s ‘no show’ act of decommissioning in October 2003, occurred because there was no political pressure on them to produce anything.He asks: “Where, exactly, is the political pressure on Sinn Fein and the clearly spelled-out consequences of its continuing failure to support the police?”

By Alex Kane

The most extraordinary aspect of Thursday’s Joint Statement is that it offers absolutely nothing to pro-Union democrats. For all of its talk about input to, and influence over the process, the DUP has got zilch. The recalled Assembly will be without power, without responsibility, without accountability. There won’t even be a shadow administration. In effect, all of unionism has been shafted.

The Statement boils down to one reality: the DUP and Sinn Fein have to have direct negotiations in order to agree a First and Deputy First Minister. In other words, what the governments have proposed is nothing more than a forum for the very negotiations that the two parties have failed to conduct since December 2004. What makes Messrs Blair and Ahern imagine that Paisley and Adams can do in a recalled Assembly what they have failed to do outside the Assembly?

As ever, the carrot and stick approach is much in evidence. There are hints that the MLAs could voice their opinions on a range of issues and a promise that “Ministers would naturally take account of views which command cross-community support within the Assembly.” Oh really! Have Hain, Hanson, Rooker and Smyth ever given the slightest indication in the past of a willingness to listen to a public or political opinion which is at variance with their own? Are they now suggesting that they would reverse decisions on water rates, public administration and education if the Assembly asked them too? Don’t be ridiculous. This is insulting, patronising and disingenuous pap.

And, if the parties can’t agree a deal, then they will be punished, with the loss of salaries and the threat of new “British-Irish partnership arrangements.” But that’s not true either, of course, is it? The IRA-bankrolled Sinn Fein won’t be too hard pushed if salaries are stopped. I can’t imagine that Gerry Adams will be weeping into his beard if a partitionist Assembly is replaced with de jure joint sovereignty. Adding insult to injury, from the unionist perspective, is the clear implication that all other parts of the Belfast Agreement will still be implemented, even if there isn’t a unionist input through the Assembly.

So, there you have it. Either the DUP cuts a deal with Sinn Fein before November 24th or the Assembly will be mothballed and replaced with a process which polishes and promotes an unfettered republican agenda. That is what Tony Blair means by take-it-or-leave it. Where, exactly, is the political pressure on Sinn Fein and the clearly spelled-out consequences of its continuing failure to support the police? Indeed, in return for nothing, other than a willingness to set up an Executive with the DUP (which they are committed to already!), Sinn Fein has been guaranteed that “the British Government’s power to suspend the Assembly will lapse for good.” Let’s face it, other than writing the document themselves, things couldn’t have worked out much better for Sinn Fein.

All of this places the DUP in a tremendously difficult position. They are now in exactly the same position as the UUP was in, in November 1999, when David Trimble was forced to retreat from “no guns, no government” and ask the Ulster Unionist Council to take a leap of faith. Had he not done so, there would have been no Executive. Now, almost seven years later, if the DUP wants an Executive, it has to take its own leap of faith and open direct dialogue with Sinn Fein.

Peter Robinson, and the coterie of former Young Unionists who make up his campaign and policy team, know that this leap of faith is necessary. The question is, will Ian Paisley sanction and then lead such a leap? Because if he doesn’t budge, then the DUP isn’t going to budge; and Peter Robinson isn’t going to risk splitting the party by advocating a solo run into the arms of Martin McGuinness. It would all have been so much easier had the DUP remained in the Talks process in 1997/98 and helped David Trimble secure a fairer deal then.

My own instincts are that the whole process will collapse before November. I see no signs that Adams or Paisley will break or compromise. Worse than that, I suspect that the electorate, on both sides of the community fence, couldn’t give a toss one way or the other anymore. I may be an atheist, but even I now believe that unionism needs a miracle!

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 8th 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