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