The major cards lie with the DUP

It’s fair to say that even before Hain’s last push began late last year, the DUP were braced for a PR onslaught on their political redoubt. In the event, the IMC reports took several iterations to push the IRA into reasonably clear water, with the last one hinting that it considers criminality to be sufficiently out-of-house not to require such close attention. As a result, the required head of political steam never quite got as far as Dundela Avenue. In the Newsletter today, Alex Kane has been taking some soundings.By Alex Kane

Addressing the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York on April 5, Peter Robinson spoke of his hope of a future in which “the eternal values of liberty and democracy have prevailed and the sons and daughters of the Planter and Gael have found a way to share the land of their birth and live together in peace.”

Addressing the British Irish Association last Saturday, Peter Hain noted that “the Plantation goes to the heart of the insecurities and grievances of both communities in Northern Ireland and touches the core of the constitutional issue for the whole island.” So he, too, wanted a solution that embraced the descendants of the Planter and Gael.

This sort of dialogue is known as the “choreography of the peace process.” Peter R speaks onto Peter H because both Peters know that the Doc has no particular interest in the Planter and Gael doing a deal at the moment. As far as he is concerned it has taken four hundred years to resolve the differences kick-started in 1609, so pushing past the November 24 deadline isn’t going to make much of a difference in the short term.

Mind you, there are some in the DUP who have more mischievous reasons for skipping through the deadline. The closure of the Assembly, and the accompanying loss of salaries, staff, offices, expenses and grants, will hit the UUP much harder than the DUP. From the DUP’s perspective, inflicting further damage on the UUP and curbing its campaigning and constituency activities, would give the DUP more room for manoeuvre in the run-up to a deal.

I can see the immediate and self-interested attraction of such a strategy for the DUP, but I fear that it could result in a mere pyrrhic victory. The days of one party umbrella unionism are gone forever, along with tens of thousands of former voters. We need two strong, effective pro-Union parties; competing to attract and maximise the unionist vote and co-operating to ensure the best possible deal. The DUP cannot carry the load alone.

There are others in the DUP who want to call the weakened Prime Minister’s bluff. They believe that the Good Friday Agreement is the only remaining feather in his legacy cap and they reckon that he won’t risk collapsing it during his last few months in Number 10. In other words, if Blair can be persuaded that the DUP is within a squeak of a deal, then he will keep the show on the road (albeit non-funded) until next Spring. This allows the DUP to seem tough to its hardcore base and also avoids the sort of internal tensions that could follow on from what looked like an enforced and jumping-too-quickly deal with Sinn Fein.

As ever, the key to the whole thing is Ian Paisley. I have written before that I suspect that all of his own personal, political and psychological instincts are opposed to any deal at all involving Sinn Fein. Yet the prospect of finishing off the UUP, along with the promise of a referendum in advance of devolution, could maybe, just maybe, tempt him.

So, the deal could look like this. Push through the November 24 deadline (to hurt the UUP); reactivate the negotiations with Sinn Fein to produce a Comprehensive Agreement Mark 2; put the deal to a referendum (Paisley won’t move without the endorsement of “the people” and a mere consultation exercise won’t convince him); an Assembly election (allowing the DUP to quickly capitalise on a hoped for referendum success); and then four years to allow the whole thing to bed down.

To be honest, the DUP is in a fairly comfortable position at the moment. Tony Blair needs a deal. Peter Hain’s career would be enhanced by a deal. The DUP has to be seen to deliver something fairly soon, but it is under no sustained pressure from either the UUP or any other unionist presence. The only fly in the ointment is Sinn Fein. Oh to be another fly on the wall in that stately home in Scotland!

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 16th September 2006