Ha! Ha! or Hmmmm?

Three months of post St Andrews negotiations on MI5, transatlantic phone calls, a prime ministerial holiday cut short, a mini-crisis and a parliamentary statement without anything particularly new to show for it besides an annual review by Lord Carlile and a few details nailed down. It is hard to identify how the November negotiation goals have been acheived. The SDLP launching an assault on Sinn Fein’s ability as negotiators and Sinn Fein on the defensive. Lots of chatter about disquiet among the republican grassroots and claims of an electoral price to be paid. The temptation for Unionists would be to sit back and enjoy a good old political bust up but do the last three months call for a Nelson Muntz moment (mp3 file) or pause for reflection?A Prime Minister who is legacy shopping didn’t budge from the fundamentals of the St Andrews Agreement as Sinn Fein employed all their tried and tested moves to squeeze something out of him. The DUP itself has a series of “outstanding issues” it wants addressed and a significant proportion of the ‘Yes’ vote in the DUP consultation was conditional on progress on these. Blair’s optical and verbal flexibility but substantive toughness towards Sinn Fein should be noted. It will be a tough negotiation ahead for the DUP and it is possibly in the area of confidence building measures that they will find greater success than changes to St Andrews.

Sinn Fein’s difficulties in talking the talk by dragging out an Ard Fheis and keeping the motion under wraps doesn’t inspire confidence that they will walk the walk and it is the walk that the DUP are focused upon. The more wholehearted the Sinn Fein motion probably the better for their southern fortunes whatever the large or small scale difficulties in Northern Ireland. However, past short bowling has never prevented the government issuing glowing statements and pressurising others to ignore the cracks. Good bad or indifferent republican delivery will each recieve the same response from government. Goggins certainly adopted a ‘nothing to see here’ approach to David Simpson’s questions in the House of Commons yesterday. Political nerve will be tested.

Margaret Thatcher said “I’ve learned one thing in politics. You don’t take a decision until you have to.” The first decision the DUP faces is on the formation of an Executive in March and the DUP doesn’t have to take its decision until after the election. Elections are the most important time for message management and the most difficult to maintain it. Talk of tests and time are essentially debates about risk and trust. Protestantism’s abhorrence of gambling has effected the political culture of Unionism with its emphasis upon certainties but any political agreement involves risk. It is unsurprising that it is primarily representatives from areas that suffered the most express the deepest distrustf. However, whether it is two months or four months, five tests or ten tests, if the republican movement is still foolish enough to be up for ‘pulling a northern’ it will do so regardless of a wait or tests. Political discipline will be required both in message and taking and sticking with decisions.

So if schadenfreude is your thing sit back and enjoy the entertainment if you wish but in the coming weeks and months Unionism needs to ensure it does not make the matinee entertainment pale by comparison.