Brian Feeney casts his steely eye over the NIO’s grand plan for pressurising the DUP into making a deal and figures they have been pressing at the wrong points, so that almost everyone but the DUP (and, although he doesn’t mention them, SF) will feel the pinch.
So far our beautifully-maintained proconsul has been doing his best. Abolition of the 11-plus, changes to rates, introduction of water charges, implementing the review of public administration with seven super councils – all come into operation after November 24. There is a hint that there is even worse to come.
You can see it’s a cunning plan concocted by some eejit in the NIO, their equivalent of Baldrick, because none of Paisley’s voters will blame Paisley. On the contrary, they blame our proconsul and his unaccountable officials.
They’re outraged at the stupid and obvious blackmail aimed at middle-class unionist voters who stand to lose most from the changes to rates, abolition of selection and water charges based on rateable value of homes. They even ignore the truth that the political parties actually planned to introduce all these measures themselves if they’d been in an administration. What is certain is that this cunning plan exerts no pressure at all on Paisley.
The other line of attack is the threat of increased Dublin input into the north – the ‘New Partnership’ between the two governments tantalisingly dangled as Plan B. Don’t hold your breath.
The idea is that the UUP will be able to say that Paisley, the man who has ranted against Dublin interference since he threw snowballs at Sean Lemass’s car 40 years ago, in a supreme irony is now the man who has caused more Dublin interference than any previous unionist leader.
By refusing to share power Paisley has brought Dublin officials and politicians into northern affairs in a more direct way than ever before and in such fashion that it can never be rolled back.
The trouble, as the alacritous Mr Feeney puts it, is… “that its creators forget that the DUP has expanded and changed”. But of course there is a rub. And it is an existential one, not one that arises from outside pressure:
Now the problem for Paisley is this. Even if he wanted to make a deal, about half his party don’t want it. For the first time in his career he has to deal with guys more ideologically pure than himself, guys for whom the DUP is not merely a political party but the political expression of a theological position.
Yet Paisley knows this is his last chance. If he doesn’t do a deal and have an assembly election in the next nine months the DUP will wither away. Oh yes, there will still be the nine or 10 MPs but without a platform the party will begin to disintegrate. The SDLP never recovered from the collapse of the Convention in 1976. The choice for Paisley is not whether to stop water charges or more Dublin involvement.
The choice is whether to maintain the political party he built up from nothing and the new generation of loyalist politicians, or allow it to dissolve into groups of ageing backwoodsmen in rural councils. If the assembly goes down, the DUP, the devolutionist party, goes down with it.
The answer, you might think, is a no brainer.
But the age profile of current DUP councillors is certainly high, though there is also some youthful talent. The re-organisation of councils will automatically dispose of a lot of the aging backwoodsmen Feeney fingers are the deadwood. Dispensing with the Assembly is not something any of the parties want. But the DUP could live with it as well as any.
There would be a certain bitter irony, if Tony Blair’s devolution project left the one part of the UK which historically had devolution ended up opting (however reluctantly) directly into a unitary British state.