Unionists beware of false promises…

Alex Kane does a spot of fisking of Peter Robinson’s speech in New York recently. He warns Unionists that despite the warnings to the contrary, the most recent Joint Statement was hardly a pro-Union document. In effect, he argues, the DUP will need more than sweet rhetoric. Given the absence of any meaningful coercion on Sinn Fein, it needs figure out how to close a stable deal rather than rely on the vague promises of Tony Blair or his ministers.By Alex Kane

In the weekend before the Joint Statement, the DUP was briefing the media that “the party is broadly satisfied with what will be proposed.” So satisfied, in fact, that a high level delegation left for America to meet and brief senators, congressmen, White House officials and newspaper editorial boards.

Twenty-four hours before the Joint Statement was released, Peter Robinson addressed The National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York. It was an important and wide ranging speech. But the most important aspect of it was that Robinson clearly believed that the Joint Statement would be very different to the one that was produced by Blair and Ahern.

Let’s look at some key paragraphs:

“Some people say the DUP will be under massive pressure come November. That is not the case. The deadline is for republicans to meet not the DUP.”

The reality, however, is that it is the DUP who have been put under massive pressure in the run-up to November.

“What is sure is that Sinn Fein will not meet the government’s deadline if they continue whinging about the two governments following a DUP agenda…”

Again, the reality was different, for the two governments simply dumped the DUP agenda and skewed the Joint Statement towards Sinn Fein’s agenda.

“It was for this reason we suggested getting the Assembly up and running at a non-executive level. This would give the Sinn Fein leadership time to deal conclusively with paramilitarism and criminality. Parties would be working together within that structure allowing trust and confidence to grow.”

But the Joint Statement puts no pressure at all on Sinn Fein or the IRA. And nor does it provide the scrutiny and shadow aspects which the DUP were clearly expecting.

“To better understand my party’s position and intent let me give you all a glimpse of the final hours of the failed 2004 negotiations as I witnessed them…””

He then goes into great detail about negotiations with both governments (admitting, by inference, that Sinn Fein was also included within the overall negotiation process) in the run-up to the Comprehensive Agreement. Again, it is clear from the tone of the speech that he is providing political background to explain the context for what he believed was in the Joint Statement.

Whatever else Peter Robinson may be, he is not a stupid man. And nor is he a man who travels half way across the world to throw caution to the wind and make up the contents of the Joint Statement. That Wednesday afternoon he believed it would include: a shadow administration; pressure in November would be exclusively on Sinn Fein; the DUP’s agenda would be given priority; and, as a direct consequence of DUP efforts, “more balance from governmental measures.” But none of that was in the Joint Statement.

The obvious conclusion, therefore, is that the DUP got “turned over” by Tony Blair. Indeed, I suspect that they were shown one form of words in the week before the publication of the Joint Statement, but, by the following Thursday, it had become a palimpsest, bearing Sinn Fein’s imprint.

I further suspect that the DUP was in deep shock by lunchtime on Thursday. So shocked, that it took them four days to give an official response to the contents. Odd, too, that the Assembly Party felt it necessary to “unanimously endorse” the party leadership’s handling of the process, yet without a single word about any successes contained in the Joint Statement. And Jeffrey Donaldson’s comments, yesterday, hardly amounted to a ringing endorsement of his new party’s tactical skills.

If my assessment is an accurate one—and I think it is—then it represents a matter of enormous concern for both unionist parties and all of unionism. Let us not forget that the Ulster Unionist Party was similarly “turned over” by Blair on October 21st, 2003. This is not a moment for unionists to panic, but it is time for them to realise that mere rhetoric isn’t going to be enough for this particular battle.

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