However imperfect, what is the alternative?

Is a line that Sinn Fein has been confronting its dissenters with for some years now. Alex Kane is no fan of the St Andrews Agreement, but he believes that even the most erudite critics, like Bob McCartney, will struggle to find any free space in which to lead a potentially large following. Whether there is or isn’t a Plan B, he warns, further integration into Great Britain structures is a non starter. In the meantime, the most tangible outcome of DUP negotiating prowess will be the Balkanisation of Northern Ireland and a Shared Future document which he colourfully describes as an odious, anti-unionist, Union-damaging monstrosity.By Alex Kane

I have a lot of time for Bob McCartney. We may not have agreed on very much over the past ten years, but we share two particular traits; a reluctance to be force-fed on spin and a determination to point out when an emperor is both naked and emasculated.

He is spot-on in his critique of the DUP. It has made a dog’s dinner in terms of negotiation, producing, not a new deal, but rather a badly doctored version of the original. St Andrews is, in fact and in effect, immeasurably worse than the 1998 deal and it will produce an utterly ineffective administration hamstrung by mutual veto.

But even though Bob may be right about St Andrews, it leaves him with a problem: namely, where is the viable and available alternative to the DUP’s comprehensive cock-up? Or, putting it more bluntly, what are the alternatives for those unionists—and I am one of them—who would have voted against St Andrews had there been a referendum instead of an election?

The ones that come to mind are either non-starters, or worse than St. Andrews. A voluntary coalition of the centre would have been my first preference, but the SDLP never had the guts to face down Sinn Fein and team up with truly democratic parties. The fact that they are now so keen to push ahead with the Irish Language Act would suggest they would continue to rule out voluntary coalition—either in government or in a formal opposition—in the future.

Integration isn’t going to happen, either. Labour just isn’t interested and a new Conservative government, for all of Cameron’s wooing of his local members, wouldn’t lift a finger. Similarly, neither Brown nor Cameron would endorse a form of Direct Rule which would be benign and impartial.

Of course, we have already been warned about Plan B, with its “greening” of the relationship and its cranking up of the machinery of de facto joint sovereignty. On top of that we would have the formal Balkanisation of Northern Ireland under the Stalinesque-styled Super Councils, accompanied by the odious, anti-unionist, Union-damaging monstrosity that masquerades as the innocuous sounding “Shared Future Framework for Good Relations in Northern Ireland.”

Sorry, I misled you there. The Super Councils and Shared Future are on their way, with or without St Andrews and there is nothing that the DUP can do about it!

Bob says he wants to reach out to “frustrated and despairing” DUP and UUP voters; but what is he planning to offer them? I ask the question because the DUP promised us something better and gave us something worse. I ask the question because Bob’s former UKUP Assembly colleagues abandoned him when offered a false choice between authentic mammon and bogus gods. We have been here before. I’m not convinced that there is something better on offer, but if Bob thinks there is, then he has a duty to spell it out and explain how it can be delivered.

As for Peter Hain! “We said in January that a power-sharing Executive must be formed this year. If by 24 November the Assembly has failed to achieve this…there would be no choice but to cancel salaries and allowances for MLAs…” Given that he has hawked that threat around for six months, how does he justify the decision to continue the cash-flow and call an election to yet another Assembly for which there has been no prior, let alone firm commitment to create a power-sharing government?

We have a Secretary of State who has jelly for a backbone and the integrity of candyfloss. He has had absolutely nothing up front from either the DUP or Sinn Fein, both of whom have spent the last two days telling us that the fat lady hasn’t even reached the opera house yet. He is, and by a very considerable margin, the worst Secretary of State we have had. He has made a fool of himself and done a huge disservice to democracy. Mr Hain, you are naked; you should go.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 18th November 2006