From fair deal to poor deal…

Alex Kane is not impressed with the St Andrews Agreement. He also recounts the rapid movement of the DUP from visceral (and distructive) opponents of any kind of compromise to accepting the broad outline of the Belfast Agreement. The only chance to improve on it, he argues is for the ‘moderate middle’ to act in concert and form a ‘voluntary opposition’ in any future Assembly.

This column has had a fairly benign view of the DUP since it became the largest unionist party at the 2003 Assembly elections. Indeed, a few weeks after that election, I argued “the DUP will be more inventive, flexible and imaginative than their critics gave them credit for. They are up for a deal and have, hopefully, learned a lesson from their previous miscalculations.”

What were those miscalculations? Well, in 1997/98, during the Talks process, the DUP insisted that the IRA would never decommission; Sinn Fein would never accept the legitimacy of partition; the Irish would never abandon their territorial claim; the Union would never be secured through internal agreement; and Sinn Fein would never sign up to recognition of a Northern Ireland police force and criminal justice system.

In all of those areas, along with quite a few others, the DUP has been guilty of serial miscalculation. But, instead of rowing in behind the UUP to apply much needed pressure on Sinn Fein and the two governments, the DUP concentrated its efforts on undermining and weakening the overall unionist position and pursued an entirely self interested electoral agenda. It was helped, and immensely so, by those who sought to destroy the UUP from within.

How ironic, now, that UUP defector Arlene Foster is criticising former colleagues for not rushing to help the DUP. How ironic, too, that Jeffrey Donaldson has been deployed as the DUP’s recruiting sergeant for a document that is the almost identical twin of the Agreement he voted and campaigned against within the UUP. And how strange the silence from Peter Weir!

The DUP has merrily triple-somersaulted from anti-Agreement, to Comprehensive Agreement, to comprehensive cock-up in three simple leaps. The St Andrews Agreement (a title thrown in by Blair to allow the DUP to pretend it was something new) is a Gorgonzola of a document, riddled with faults, wood-wormed with inconsistencies and strait-jacketed with caveats, codicils, ifs, ands, pots and pans.

It is worse than the Belfast Agreement; and it is worse because it has taken a document which had internal (but fixable) problems and, instead of addressing and resolving them, has actually managed to insert new (and unfixable) problems. Whatever the DUP may claim has been done to provide extra scrutiny on North-South matters, nothing has been done to address the far more pressing matter of accountability at Executive, Ministerial, Assembly and Committee levels.

Oh yes, there are all kinds of vague promissory notes about sorting problems out later, but let’s face it, the DUP has had over eight years to come up with a genuine alternative to the Belfast Agreement, or, at the very least, a seriously amended version of the original. It has done neither. And it is being disingenuous when it claims to have safeguarded a number of “unionist interests.” It may be able to impose a veto on some issues, but it will still be dependent on Sinn Fein’s imprimatur when it comes to almost everything else.

The mean streak in me wants to let the DUP stew in its own juice. But that won’t help Northern Ireland and it certainly won’t help a pro-Union community which needs devolution to sustain and promote its particular identity within a UK in which devolution is the political norm.

I believe that the UUP should assist the DUP as best it can; yet I also believe that the UUP should work together with the SDLP and Alliance to create a pre and post election coalition of the centre. My own instinct is that such a coalition should refuse ministerial office when the next Executive is formed, for the best way ahead for Northern Ireland, the Agreement and the normalisation of politics here, is inbuilt accountability, official opposition and genuine choice. A voluntary coalition, in opposition at this stage, fits the bill perfectly.

The DUP has already learned that there is a price to be paid for being the largest party. They also need to learn that there is a price to be paid for engineering a carve-up between themselves and Sinn Fein.

First published in the Newsletter, on Saturday 21s October 2006

  • ?????

    Just where is peter weir, anyone know?

  • Dualta

    Very good stuff from Alex Kane, but DUP hacks will be quick to point out that decommissioning did happen with the DUP in the driving seat.

  • Professor JM Keynes


  • páid

    I’m glad that Blair overruled Ahern and called it the St Andrews Agreement instead of Document Number Two.

  • Ziznivy

    Neither of the parties mentioned as possible partners in a centrist coalition have been particularly responsive to the idea in the past. Perhaps the time is now right for this but it remains to be seen.

    The idea of opposition may be a sound one, but it will be too much of a wrench for the UUP. The UUP will “help” the DUP from within the executive which will tie the party much more inextricably with the project. If the executive successful and popular no benefit will accrue to the party because the DUP will be seen as the architects, if it is not successful no benefit will accrue as the UUP will be seen as integral to the executive.

    A glum prospect, but alas that is what will happen.

  • Crataegus

    nothing has been done to address the far more pressing matter of accountability at Executive, Ministerial, Assembly and Committee levels.

    A structure that includes all and has no opposition really does beggar belief.

    I agree with Alex on this one all governments need an opposition. The parties mentioned would be wise to stay out of the Executive and mount an effective opposition on what will probably become a deeply unpopular administration, increased rates, school reform (or not) water charges, cut backs in service etc. Let the DUP and SF reap the reward they deserve.

  • kensei

    “I agree with Alex on this one all governments need an opposition. The parties mentioned would be wise to stay out of the Executive and mount an effective opposition on what will probably become a deeply unpopular administration, increased rates, school reform (or not) water charges, cut backs in service etc. Let the DUP and SF reap the reward they deserve.”

    Nah. The problem for oppositions is that they must present a credible alternative. The DUP and SF could run many rings round the SDLP and the UUP on this basis. The SDLP would also likely get slaughtered on the National issue by coordinating policy with the UUP.

    The important point about this place at the moemnt is buy-in, not an opposition. And the parties are so suspicious of each other it’s not like the won’t pass an oppurtunity to rip into each other if given the chance.

    “Normal” democracy here is a Unionist pipe dream.

  • Crataegus


    Difficult to really get stuck in if you are part of the Executive.

    Believe me there are some nasty bread and butter issues in the pipe line and I have not seen too many coherent positions from our political elite. I would still be inclined to let SF and DUP fry in their own juices. Let them take the blame and they will suffer real damage.

    As for real democracy here don’t see it just yet, myself.

  • interested

    If we’re talking about unpalatable things in the pipline then what you’re saying is let parties now reap the rewards of things which were set in motion by the previous Executive, which of course was led by the UUP.

    I dont disagree that a Government is better with an opposition – however, the parties which are now crying about this were the strongest opponents of a mandatory coalition. Which is it fellas? Is it simply that you want a mandatory coalition when you are leading it – surely not!

    Hopefully we will see the situation come about where we could move to a voluntary coalition – which would allow for an opposition. The DUP have been pressing for this, however I never once heard the UUP claim this was necessary when they were busy out there selling the wonders of the Belfast Agreement.

    The trouble with the opposition argument for the UUP remains that they still believe they ‘deserve’ to be in Government as of right. There are still too many of them who believe they should get Ministerial posts even if they got 200 votes across the whole of Northern Ireland.

    Alex’s criticisms might carry just a little weight if it were not for the fact that he still believes the Belfast Agreement is some kind of fantastic document which would save unionism – if only we could get those ‘garden centre prods’ out to vote. If we’re talking about discredited theories then there’s one which would be at the top of the list.

    Perhaps Alex would be kind enough to actually furnish people with some details as to where he finds the problems with accountability. However, at least the DUP are ensuring that any issues there are now are solved before government is established. I see that it takes about 3 1/2 years after the Assembly was suspended for Alex to admit that there were problems with the Belfast Agreement – but dont worry folks, they can be fixed! I think the phrase he’s looking for includes horses, doors and bolted.

  • kensei

    “Difficult to really get stuck in if you are part of the Executive.”

    I think you’ll find politics here will evolve to let Ministers take as much of the blame as possible.

    “Letting people stew” is also a risk. If SF and the DUP get a programme through with comaparative success, then you have bolstered their position.

    If people are truly unhappy with decisions made it will create space for other parties or indpeendents to get in. I’m not unduly worried about a lack of formal opposition. I’m more worried about paralysed government if we get on a tit for tat cross commuity vote merry go round.

  • Dr. Kane Memorial

    Why should Unionists listen to a man who supported the Belfast Agreement, who supported Trimble at every turn and only turned on him about two years after everyone else in Ulster realised he was electorate repellant and who flirted with joining the Tories only a matter of weeks ago?

    I know we give John Coulter a hard time on here (and deservedly so) but clearly he’s not the only one with a skee-wiff analysis!!

  • lib2016

    Defining the UUP as a party of the centre is some stretch. Maybe he means in the 1950’s when Britain still had an empire to go with it’s imperial and undemocratic policies?

    Joke’s over, friends and no-one realises it better than the very pro-European people of the SDLP. Why on earth would they tie themselves to our provincial oppressors of the past?

    The future is in Dublin, Brussels and the wider world, not with yesterday’s failures.

  • Alex. Kane

    interested: (4.38)

    “I see that it takes about 3 and a half years after the Assembly was suspended for Alex to admit there were problems with the Belfast Agreement.”

    Not true. I have expressed my concerns since August 1998, but hoped that the issues would be addressed in the proposed review allowed for under Para 36 of Strand 1.

    I have also written about the subject of an “inbuilt and fully funded opposition” since December 1999.

    You ask me to “furnish people with some details as to—the problems with accountability..”

    1: Accountability as to mean the ability to hold a whole government to account.

    2: It has to mean the ability to fully and truly scrutinise the legislative programme.

    3: It has to mean the opportunity to offer the electorate the opportunity to make the choice between an outgoing government and a potential replacement.

    Some may say that the parties are ultimately accountable to the electorate. I say bollocks to that. If you have a mandatory coalition in which 12+ percent of the vote gets you into government then there ain’t much prospect of genuine accountability.

    The 2005 manifestoes for the general election and local council saw the parties claiming credit for anything good that had happened under the Assembly and then blaming their coalition partners for anything bad.

    Also, the Programme for Government under mandatory coalition is just a huge wishlist.

    I have siad all of this before and on numerous occasions. Mandatory coalition equals mandatory unaccountable government.

    The DUP had a chance to address these issues—and they have had eight years to deal with it! Yes, they tacked on some structures as regards North-South, but only to the extent of producing government by sludge.

    Trimble described the original agreement as “constructive ambiguity.” The St Andrews version is “convoluted ambiguity.”

    Dr. Kane Memorial:

    I still broadly support the Belfast Agreement. As do the UUP and the DUP, by the way.

    I didn’t “flirt with joining the Tories only a matter of weeks ago.” I pointed out that they had an opportunity under Cameron that hadn’t existed since 1992. But in 2 articles and at least two recent interviews I expressed the view that Cameron would turn out to be flaky on NI and wouldn’t divvy up.

    As for David Trimble! I think it was as long ago as the autumn of 1998 that he described me as “an irritating f…ker who can’t be relied on to toe the line on anything.” I don’t really think he altered his opinion at all in the intervening years.

    Am now being dragged off to some awful event at the Belfast Festival. The things you do for love!

    best wishes,


  • Dr. Kane Memorial

    Yes Alex, David Trimble may well have called you an irritating f*cker and who am I to disagree with him, but the fact of the matter is that you, repeatedly in your column cheered him on every inch of the way and only started to voice serious criticism in your when it became more than apparent to you (a considerable time after it became more than apparent to everyone else) that Trimble was going to lead the UUP to electoral annihilation.

  • Dr. Kane Memorial

    As for the thrust of Alex’s article that the Belfast Agreement was better than the St. Andrews one, why then is the UUP of which Alex is a member supporting the document?

    Reg et al are behaving in an extremely dishonest fashion over this – endorsing the contents of the dicument, while at the same time trying to attack the DUP for what’s in it.

  • fair_deal

    An interesting article