The DUP ready to exert the power of the ‘outsider’…

Probably the most sentient piece of journalism I’ve seen on Northern Ireland for some time. Frank Millar asks whether it matters if Tony Blair is around to collect on his sunken capital (subs needed) in Northern Ireland. And he gauges the opinion inside what is, increasingly, the only party that matters going forward: the one time pariahs of the DUP. History has a way of concealing its own narratives:

The dreary steeples have witnessed a number of significant departures since the peace process took root. When “pan-nationalism” was at its height, the loss of US President Bill Clinton (not to mention the arrival of President Bush) might have seemed more than the process could bear. Yet it proved otherwise.

Interestingly he probes the newer, underlying, assumption of the Peace Process™ which was that the two extremes had to be drawn inside the same democratic tent in order to make politics work in Northern Ireland. It’s also a key assumption in our own report on the future of Unionism, A Long Peace?. But (and here’s the context for tonight’s threat from Hain):

…while Blair and Ahern pray the Rev Ian Paisley really does want to play out his final days as First Minister, realists in both systems (as well as in Sinn Féin) allow privately they may actually have to wait for Peter Robinson. In other words, it is never quite the end of history. And in fairness Northern Secretary Peter Hain stopped short of making that claim in Dundalk last week.

However, he is adamant that history will certainly be put on hold if Paisley and the DUP do not deliver this autumn – “because the world will move on”. Blair’s official spokesman echoes the same message – implicitly warning the DUP against “waiting for Gordo” – insisting next month’s talks in Scotland represent “a unique window of opportunity”. And just in case anyone still has not got the point, Northern Ireland Office Minister David Hanson suggests the consequences of not taking it could be “dire”.

Now get this. He makes three points drawn from conversations with people inside Whitehall:

First that, despite his (Brown’s) determination to extend his treasury control over almost every government department, Brown has shown little interest in Northern Ireland.

Second, that Hain’s view probably approximates with Brown’s own, that the North’s political class (“really, for the most part, at lower council level,” as one source puts it) is pampered and over-indulged.

And third, that the cautious Brown believes Blair has invested too much in the North for too little return, and to the neglect of Labour’s real “domestic” priorities.

Then, assuming that with regard to Northern Ireland at least Brown might prove more Atlee than Blair:

…some senior NIO officials think Brown’s chief critic, Charles Clarke, would be ideal for the role. While acknowledging that the same personal commitment will probably not be there – and officially observing the “absolute” nature of the November 24th deadline – official sources with long experience also privately admit “it’s probably not needed”.

And this, they say, is because “everybody knows where agreement lies” and because the political reality – that the process is only driven by a successful Anglo-Irish partnership – “has been internalised on both sides all the way back to Sunningdale”[my italics.

And finally Blair and Ahern’s dilemma:

What neither of them yet knows is whether the DUP will gamble on delay. Key Blair aides say that would be “at the very least a risky bet”. And the Robinson wing of the DUP sees little virtue in delay for its own sake since, as one “moderniser” puts it, “the deal will be the same whether it’s Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or David Cameron”.

Others close to Dr Paisley, however, take the harsher view – shared incidentally at the highest levels of the SDLP – that Brown could hardly do a worse job given what they see as Blair’s total inability ever to face-down Sinn Féin.

It seems these conflicting assessments will inform an internal DUP debate as to whether all their terms must be met before a decision to enter government with Sinn Féin, or whether the vexed question of policing might be better pushed into the long grass.

However, the DUP’s calculations will be further complicated by the view of some senior figures that – even if the right terms can be had – the passage of time and change of personnel would make it easier for people (that is unionists) to see what emerges as being “different” from the Belfast Agreement.

As one of their number puts it (emphatically off the record): “It really might be better to break with all the paraphernalia, baggage and spin of Blair.”

Irish negotiators would find this a highly superficial approach, while Blair’s admirers might think it poor reward for his labours. But in the harsh world of politics the DUP – kept in the cold while Trimble and the UUP prevailed – might figure they owe him nothing.

And if the “anybody but Blair” tendency prevails, then it might be the wrong prime minister travelling to Scotland next month.

  • “the North’s political class (“really, for the most part, at lower council level,” as one source puts it)”

    That is why when the time comes to put this back together again no one will stand for 108 of them drawing Stormont salaries.

  • aquifer

    ‘the vexed question of policing might be better pushed into the long grass’

    and invite separatist subversion onto the streets?

  • joeCanuck

    are you suggesting aquifier that the so called loyalists might revolt?
    Do you think they could defeat the combined British and Irish army forces that would be aligned against them. Not to mention friendly others.
    That’s a non-starter.

  • IJP

    I don’t buy this line that the DUP is the only party holding the cards at all.

    Come March, it’ll need a partner to do the deal. That partner will, by necessity, be Sinn Féin. But with an impending election in the Republic, I’m not at all sure Sinn Féin will be on the field…

  • Crataegus

    Someone please tell me what was the point in voting for a peace agreement?

  • páid

    between millar and moriarty, the times have the best team on the pitch, methinks. and newt was funny today.

  • German-American

    Regarding the competence of Northern Ireland’s political class: Northern Ireland’s population (about 1.7M as I understand it) is comparable to that of smaller US states or larger US counties. In my experience such jurisdictions have at most 10-20 reasonably competent politicians, with the number of truly competent ones measured on the fingers of one hand. I can well understand how having 108 MLAs forces NI to play in the shallow end of the talent pool.

    But what I really can’t understand is how many councillors there are, even under the new supercouncil scheme. According to the Review of Public Administration site, “Each of the seven new councils will have approximately 60 councillors.” Maybe councillors in NI are different than members of city or county councils in the US, but frankly this seems insane. A typical mid-sized US county or city (which seems comparable to a supercouncil) would have 5-10 council members. What do the other 50-55 councillors do?

  • DK

    the process is only driven by a successful Anglo-Irish partnership – “has been internalised on both sides all the way back to Sunningdale”

    So that explains why Thatcher was happy to do the Anglo-Irish agreement. British policy for decades has been about getting the Irish Government involved in NI. The squabblings and “military” campaigns launched by the locals in Northern Ireland have merely been a distraction.

    So, if Britain is trying to get the Irish government to jointly run NI, what is the point of local democracy at all?

  • Yokel

    The combined might of who?

    Jesus. Joe Canuck that is about as thick a comment as I’ve seen.

    1. Any such conflict won’t see the pitting of might against might it is going to be an insurgency where having 100 soldiers on every street corner counts for comaratively little.

    2. What might of what Irish Army? It isn’t big enough to cope with a proper insurgency end of story. It doesnt have the kit nor does it have the experience.

    3. As for the British, its lost a third of its forces since the end the cold war, is removing its installations which would not be easy to get back again and it couldn’t now put the numbers required on the streets.

    It didn’t matter how many troops were on the streets throughout the troubles it went on.

    What I believe you are suggesting is that they be deployed to pretty much mow over Tianamen Square style the loyalists. You’d have lost your voice whinging if that attitude was adopted against republicans (and no it wasn’t or we’d have a lot more dead)and woudl have shat yourself if you had faced that yourself. If thats your logic, two words for ya, fupping hypocrite.

    DK read Thatchers own thoughts on the Anglo Irish Agreement. She thought more than anything that it woudl see the Irish Government be a full partner in the conflict against the Provos for giving them an apparent bit of influence (which by the way is totally dependent on the Brits being willing to accomodate it). It wasn’t getting them involved for involvements sake.

    If Ireland wants influence in the North, pay for it, then fair enough.

  • lib2016

    The Americans in Iraq reckon an area is secure if they can travel around it in a humvee with a heavymachine on the top of it with a fair degree of safety.

    The Brits never managed that in South Armagh and faced the prospect of the Tyrone/Fermanagh area joining it together with massive forces needed for even a semblance of police work to be done in Derry, Belfast, Newry and elsewhere.

    Drawing back to barracks and letting unionists stew in their own juice in a few council estates is a fairly attractive prospect in comparison. If the loyalists feel they have public support let them give us a demonstration – or might their so-called support be a total illusion, as daft as the ideas of any pub republican?

  • Excellent piece as usual, but it does leave me a little confused. Millar starts out making the argument that “Blair may now be a liability in search for North deal”, But his portrait of Brown seems to me to make the case for an early agreement.

    While the temptation is there for the DUP to try ‘waiting for Gordon’, there’s nothing to suggest it will be a productive strategy.

    There’s also one other factor which should be added to the equation, the Scottish elections, an issue which was dealt with very well in this Irish News piece by James Kelly.

  • IJP


    What was the point of voting for a peace agreement

    I was out at a friend’s 30th birthday party last weekend in a funky bar in the Cathedral Quarter – I’m public-school-educated Anglo of Conservative parents from North Down, her father is a Sinn Féin MLA.

    Basically, none of that could have happened at her 20th.

    That was the point, I think.