“Any poker player would want to take Blair for all he’s got.”

In the Sunday Times, Liam Clarke provides a not unreasonable assessment of the state of play

The DUP holds the strongest hand of any unionist party in decades. For one thing, it doesn’t have Paisley snapping at its heels. But the next few months will determine its skill at playing poker.

Given the various mood music emanting from the usual suspects, Clarke’s opening lines are worth highlighting.

There is a growing feeling that, as we enter the latest talks season in Northern Ireland, the DUP is under pressure to make concessions. Sinn Fein, on the other hand, flushed in the afterglow of IRA decommissioning and two favourable reports from the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), is the party with choices and options.

In fact, the opposite is the case. The DUP has an extremely strong hand and it is Sinn Fein that is under pressure to deliver. There is no imperative for a deal to be done by November 24, the deadline imposed by the British and Irish governments. The DUP can afford to stretch it into next year and let the pressure mount on Sinn Fein. And Ian Paisley’s party can expect to extract billions in public spending promises from the British government as Tony Blair struggles to secure his legacy.

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  • Crataegus

    At last someone else has caught on but if you ask me their cutting this one very fine if their cutting it at all. Blair may not last. I would go for virtual independence and tax raising powers but that’s my bias.

  • Occasional Commentator

    Why is everyone determined to choose one or other of the DUP and SF as having by far the strongest hand? Both parties are pretty secure in their electoral support and are well capable of maintaining it. They both lose out financially if the Assembly is pulled but they have plenty of other income.

    They could both lose some of their recent electoral gains if voters blame them for failure, but they won’t lose their core support. And anyway, if devolution is scrapped, they are each well capable of avoiding the blame in the eyes of their supporters.

  • George

    The DUP may hold a strong hand but they, like many of their adversaries in SF, don’t seem to have noticed that the game is over and the audience have gone home.

    Also, it’s quite depressing to think that the best the DUP can supposedly achieve is a promise of more public spending – exactly what Northern Ireland doesn’t need in the long term if there is local input in how it is spent.

    Like DUPs Sammy Wilson last year on seatbelts for school buses saying after the disaster in the Republic that they can’t afford the 50 million needed to upgrade and then the British saying last month they are going to upgrade.

    Killing Home Rule with Kindness – 21st century style.

  • German-American

    Just to be clear, it was Kenny Rogers who sang “The Gambler”, not Johnny Cash. (Kenny Rogers then took his “winnings” from the song and started a roast chicken franchise, now moribund in the US but still hanging on in the Middle East and Asia. I have no idea if this holds any lessons for politics in Northern Ireland.)

    Getting back to the topic at hand, I’m going to disagree slightly with OC: I think Clarke is right that the DUP is in a somewhat better position than SF. Arguably from Paisley’s point of view “winning” is defined as keeping SF out of government for the rest of his natural life and as far beyond it as possible; I suspect this point of view is shared by many DUP activists and voters. This is a task which can presumably be accomplished simply by the DUP doing nothing except continuing to say “no”.

    On the other hand, I’m guessing that SF has to be able to show its supporters something beyond what it has now, in order to avoid the perception that the “war” was fought for nothing. If there’s no deal with the DUP then SF’s fallback position are things like joint stewardship, the super-councils, and so on that don’t exist today and may never exist in their hoped-for form.

    So the bottom line is that I suspect the DUP’s members and electorate would be reasonably satisfied if the status quo were to continue indefinitely, but the same is not true of SF.

  • Occasional Commentator

    German-American,
    If the DUP turned down a good deal, it would be good for SF. SF don’t need the GFA to work, they just need to be seen to have made a genuine effort to get an agreement. They have a longer game to play.

    Many unionists and loyalists might ask themselves what they point of electing the DUP over and over again if nothing changes on the ground for the better for them. The poorer parts of NI aren’t getting any better off. Now that the IRA have decommissioned, the average unionist and loyalist is going to want something more than “keep those now-peaceful people out of power”. Remember loyalists are often for the GFA.

    Neither the DUP nor SF need an Agreement. They’ll gain or lose support on whether the agreement they accepted/rejected was good enough. But that depends on exactly what’s on offer – turning down a bad deal won’t do them any harm other than the obvious financial consequences.

  • Crow

    It seems the DUP do hold the stronger hand but that is not new. This was supposed to be neutralized or at least off-set by the much hyped ‘step change’ in Anglo-Irish relations. The DUP appears to view this as a bluff or at least that something less substantive will emerge for fear of raising loyalist ire. If they are correct that does not leave SF with much room for maneuver. Sure they can play the wounded party in the upcoming Dail elections but 4 or 5 extra seats will be little balm for your average northern republican, given the perceived significant compromises they have already made. This hand, once played out and the pot collected, may pail in significance to the next one.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Clarke’s analysis seems to be ignoring the political situation which has transpired here slowly over the past 2-3 years. I don’t know why people are out there arguing for the parties to play it cool, when the two governments have quite deliberately backed themselves into a corner over the deadline by saying that it is the last chance and that it cannot be moved. How can the governments shift the dates now, after saying repeatedly that the dates won’t budge ?

    The prevailing wind, despite ominous threats from unionist politicians, is blowing towards some kind of joint authority – a situation which may not benefit SF but certainly won’t hurt the either. Unionism must act if it really wants the union to be strengthened.

    In fact, the opposite is the case. The DUP has an extremely strong hand and it is Sinn Fein that is under pressure to deliver.

    Given the latest IMC report what is there for SF to deliver ? I’d be a lot more interested to see the DUP delivering loyalist disarmament.

    And Ian Paisley’s party can expect to extract billions in public spending promises from the British government as Tony Blair struggles to secure his legacy.

    Wait a minute, wait a minute. The government has been cutting back public spending in NI for a while now, most noticeably in terms of education budgets. At the same time the tax burden is being increased; rates increases and the introduction of water charges are likely, and local businesses are going to be hit by the abolition of industrial de-rating. Letters have been written by Treasury representatives complaining about the high levels of public spending and, with Gordon likely to segue into Number 10 at some point in the new year, the pressure on public spending is unlikely to be reversed.

    I’ve no idea where Clarke gets this stuff from.

  • aquifer

    I wonder where Clarke gets the extra clarity glass for his specs:

    “The merits of each vetoed settlement could be debated, but the outcome was clear on each occasion – there was a period of political stasis, republican arguments that NI was a failed entity gained ground, and when unionists next came to the table, the deal on offer was worse than the previous one.”

    Political power could be a bit like muscle. Wait too long to use it and find flab.

    Its there already of course, for some time the young DUP hopefuls have been deepening their voices and fattening their jowls to look more like their debating master.

  • Crataegus

    Comrade

    It is based on the premise that Blair wants a legacy and some may be keen to ensure he has one to get rid of him. I think the opportunity may have passed and I have a feeling we are going no where.

    George

    I agree the last thing NI needs is more government spending. More important is the power to restructure the economy to make it more competitive. Such a position would also be to the advantage of Nationalists.

  • Billy

    Where did Clarke get this nonsense about “extracting billions”?

    As Comrade Stalin says, the UK govt are looking to cut back in public spending and NI is the Prime Target. Gordon Brown will look to recoup some of the Iraq war money and NI is the easiest place to do it. There will not be any electoral pain for GB, the average UK voter sees NI as a massive drain on the UK taxpayer (which it is).

    Blair may want his legacy but I don’t think that the treasury or cabinet will let him spend “billions” to try and achieve it.

    I don’t think that the DUP are in a strong position at all. This govt has finally faced down the Orange card and called Paisley’s bluff. I believe that they will have no hesitation in dismissing the assembly and bringing in joint stewardship.

    This is not joint authority but (with the super councils) will give the RoI a lot more input into the running of NI. With the demographic changes, this process can only proceed in 1 direction.

    The “Loyalist” paramilitaries are full of s**t. If they start targetting innocent Catholics – they’ll be confronted with the PSNI + the army (no more collusion with the RIR). They are very brave about killing unarmed Catholic pensioners but haven’t the guts or brains to sustain a camapaign against a professional army – anyway, they are more interested in drug dealing.

    I honestly think that Paisley knows his time is limited and wants to be seen as the “man who didn’t sell Ulster out”. Unfortunately, Unionism needs a leader who realises that it should deal when it’s at it’s strongest position.

    The ground is slipping from beneath Unionism’s feet as time passes. The more they let this happen, the worse the final deal will be for them.

  • Anorak
  • Comrade Stalin

    Cratageus:

    It is based on the premise that Blair wants a legacy and some may be keen to ensure he has one to get rid of him.

    Indeed. Tenacious at best, as I think we agree. Blair has given up on this place.

    The Brits are likely to respond to any kind of cash injection request with loud guffaws, followed by “come back to us when you’ve got your government up and running .. we’ll help when you’ve decided to take on the job you were elected for”.

    Billy :

    The “Loyalist” paramilitaries are full of s**t. If they start targetting innocent Catholics – they’ll be confronted with the PSNI + the army (no more collusion with the RIR). They are very brave about killing unarmed Catholic pensioners but haven’t the guts or brains to sustain a camapaign against a professional army – anyway, they are more interested in drug dealing.

    The loyalist paramilitaries are armed and extremely dangerous, and they are a threat which needs to be taken seriously. They are a danger to everyone, not just Catholic civilians. They are not to be underestimated and frankly, we need to start making efforts now to eliminate them.

    What galls me is the willingness within unionism to use that very real threat as some kind of a lever on the political process. Unionism should be working for the dismantling of loyalist paramilitarism, which has almost no mandate. Instead they are accomodating it and trying to reach an understanding with it. Unionism must stop volunteering itself as armed loyalism’s political wing.

  • Pete Baker

    Comrade

    I wouldn’t get too excited about the investment talk… it’s been discussed at length at Hain’s the Programme for Government Committee, indeed one of the stumbling blocks in passing the report from the sub-committee on economic matters was Sinn Féin’s insistence on detailing what was needed in the ‘peace dividend’ – although, in reality, that may just mean a re-jigging of previously announced investment.

    As for loyalist paramilitarism.. I think you’ll find that both governments have been accomodating and trying to reach an understanding with it.. more so than any particular parties… the UUP included.

  • brendan,belfast

    “Johnny did record The Gambler.”

    But it is the person who writes the song who should get the namecheck, and that was definitely Kenny Rogers.

  • Pete Baker

    Just to add.. in considering who has the stronger hand – not a phrase I’d personally chose but, whatever – an important consideration is which party wants, and perhaps needs, the Assembly to be viewed as a political success.

    It isn’t the DUP.

  • Pete Baker

    One further point, on the question of “Given the latest IMC report what is there for SF to deliver?”

    Movement on policing [and by association criminality]. The one major obstacle to devolution… and the area that Peter Hain has been hedging his bets – see the Glenties speech – on making a clear demand for movement..

    After all, why put public pressure on a party you already know is under pressure to move on in a particular area..

  • Simon

    “The DUP holds the strongest hand of any unionist party in decades.”

    Wow deja vu. I recall the same phrase being used for the Ulster Unionists during the 1992 General Election campaign.

  • kensei

    “Just to add.. in considering who has the stronger hand – not a phrase I’d personally chose but, whatever – an important consideration is which party wants, and perhaps needs, the Assembly to be viewed as a political success.

    It isn’t the DUP.”

    It isn’t SF either, who will be perfectly content with controlling the West via Super Councils, increased North-South cooperation and pinning all the blame for refusal to deal on the DUP.

    In fact, I can think of nothing more helpful to SF than confirmation of the Nationalist suspicion that the DUP just does not want a Catholic about the place.

  • Pete Baker

    “In fact, I can think of nothing more helpful to SF than confirmation of the Nationalist suspicion that the DUP just does not want a Catholic about the place.”

    Apart from the implications, for SF, in the forthcoming elections in the Republic of Ireland, and their need to show the success of their negotiations, kensei, that would also rely on avoiding the blame.. a point which the original post addresses.

    Policing, kensei.. that’s where the focus will be.

  • aquifer

    So the DUP can hand SF a few more seats in Dail Eireann. Politics is already all-Ireland. What will the DUP do about it, knowing that their sectarian form restricts the political help they will be offered without a settlement, from either east or west? Gambling Ulster on a hung parliament at westminster, or Browns favour? That is only likely to gather up more enemy MPs there to do Unionism down later. Blame the UUP again??

    Their own persecution complex must be very dear to them. Just like SF.

  • Anorak

    On “The Gambler” – it was written by Don Schlitz and recorded first by him. OK Kenny Rogers is the best known recording, but not the only and not the original.

    Keep mine country.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Pete,

    I think you’re right in your implication that SF needs the assembly to work, given that SF have put so much store in the implementation of the GFA. That said, SF have also been saying that if the DUP will not co-operate then the government should implement the remaining parts – a position which seems to be accepting the possibility that an assembly may not happen and endorsing the much-aired Plan B.

    I agree that SF have still to deliver on policing. But I’m frustrated with the attitude that the DUP don’t have to deliver anything. To say that the DUP are wholly supportive of the police is a stretch (remember the Alexandra Bar raid?) and the DUP do have very real responsibilities in the work that needs to be done to end loyalist paramilitarism.

  • IJP

    If the DUP extracts billions we should all be VERY worried… because WE will be paying them.

    Pete

    Not unreasonable assessment… actually, I think it’s an unusually unreasonable assessment!

    George

    The DUP may hold a strong hand but they, like many of their adversaries in SF, don’t seem to have noticed that the game is over and the audience have gone home.

    I wouldn’t have chosen your examples to illustrate this, but that sentence is spot on and very important.

  • kensei

    “Apart from the implications, for SF, in the forthcoming elections in the Republic of Ireland, and their need to show the success of their negotiations, kensei, that would also rely on avoiding the blame.. a point which the original post addresses.”

    It’s all in the spin. And Southerners will alos have suspicions about the DUP.h

    “Policing, kensei.. that’s where the focus will be. ”

    Policing will be sorted as part of a comprehensive deal; at a minimum a timetable will be laid out 0- transfer of powers, joining policing boards etc.

    If this screws up, I fail to se ehow it isn’t the DUP’s fault.

  • Crataegus

    Comrade

    DUP do have very real responsibilities in the work that needs to be done to end loyalist paramilitarism.

    Too true. The DUP seem to be adept at taking no responsibility for anything. No responsibility no blame, whilst blaming others seems to have served them well. Personally I find them sanctimonious and hypocritical. Doing nothing and voids suits their particular brand of politics.

  • abucs

    The Gambler – what a great song. I’m sure it must be out of the Scots-Irish tradition of American music. Surely it must be Don McSchlitz ? :o)

    I think you can argue the DUP have a strong hand but i think it is a hand they HAVE to play, which then limits how strong it is.

    If there isn’t a deal and the western councils get used to running their own show with enhanced powers, its going to be some trick to convince them to throw that away for a unionist dominated central assembly. If the western councils also start dealing with the south, that puts pressure on negotiations in any future assembly also dealing in a similiar way with the south. If NI can’t then get together to form an assembly NI may become a country in name only. Bad for unionism IMHO, but the DUP doesn’t fragmant and SF doesn’t get into government in a NI wide assembly. This is the typical weaker hand scenario when next you come back to the table. (if you do at all).

    If there is a deal though the DUP i think will come under pressure from a probable split, especially from the losers of the Paisley succession race. SF on the other hand will look more respectable to southern voters as a party who knows government, though NI would be much more secure as British with parties engaging in ‘partition politics’ and will be better able to benefit its citizens than a council / joint stewardship setup and thus be more relevant and stable as a political entity. It will also mean the south is held at arms length and will have to deal direct with the assembly before having an input.

    So pradoxically, i think in the short term a deal would be good for Unionism and SF. On the other hand in the short term no deal would be good for Nationalism and the DUP. Go figure.

    The interesting question for me is what do the DUP think is most important ?

  • Elvis Parker

    ‘SF either, who will be perfectly content with controlling the West via Super Councils’
    In the way that the Conservatives control most of the councils in rural England?
    Not really going to keep their supporters happy is it?

  • kensei

    “In the way that the Conservatives control most of the councils in rural England?
    Not really going to keep their supporters happy is it?”

    Except, it’s absolutely nothing like that, and the Assembly is a glorified council anyway. And it was SF pushing for the 7, probably because of this very scenario.