Will the DUP horse actually drink the water?

Frank Millar in an Op Ed the Irish Times (subs needed) is cautiously upbeat about the likelihood of a successful deal. The timing however, he believes, will turn on the degree to which Ian Paisley is prepared countenance a possible split in his political project. But, as ever, the questions facing the party are more complex than that. Not least because in scoring what may be a crucial win over the issue of policing, there are likely to be diminishing future returns, even under a Brown premiership. A split is not likely, though inability to agreed within the timeframe is possible:

Among the serious players as yet unconvinced by Mr Blair, of course, are senior members of what is sometimes referred to as the DUP’s “collective leadership”. This may in the past have been an amusing concept to an all-powerful Dr Paisley, but it is an extreme irritant now as his seemingly monolithic party battles perceptions of doubt and growing division.

Before members of the leadership rush to complain, this is not to suggest the DUP is about to split, Ulster Unionist-style. Even as they manoeuvre to define/shift/maintain positions, the DUP’s elected representatives show remarkable discipline. “We’re like family when all is said and done,” explains one of their number: “We’re not going to go the way of [ David] Trimble’s party.”

However, in a parliamentary party of nine MPs, Nigel Dodds, Gregory Campbell, David Simpson and William McCrea, acting apparently in concert with party chairman Lord Morrow and MEP Jim Allister, represent a significant strand of unionist opinion.

Coalescing around a strict interpretation of stated DUP policy, it seems reasonable to assume this group was at least a factor in preventing the further advance in Dr Paisley’s position that Mr Adams and the two governments had hoped to hear over the Christmas period.

But, he notes, internal deference is not quite what it used to be:

That said, the attempt to hold Dr Paisley to a defined period in which to “test” Sinn Féin’s bona fides – and the resistance to any commitment to a timetable for the devolution of policing powers – has every appearance of being confident and co-ordinated. Former diehard loyalists no longer exhibit quite the same faith in “the Big Man”, while some potential successors sense the march of time and suspect him in too much of a hurry to secure a radically-revised “legacy” of his own.

Backbenchers, but…

…in a parliamentary party of nine MPs, Nigel Dodds, Gregory Campbell, David Simpson and William McCrea, acting apparently in concert with party chairman Lord Morrow and MEP Jim Allister, represent a significant strand of unionist opinion.

Coalescing around a strict interpretation of stated DUP policy, it seems reasonable to assume this group was at least a factor in preventing the further advance in Dr Paisley’s position that Mr Adams and the two governments had hoped to hear over the Christmas period.

He hints at some over heating and frustration within what might be loosely described as the ‘pro-deal’ camp:

Anyone who thinks completing the DUP transition to power-sharing will be comfortable – or is cavalier about Dr Paisley’s need for maximum unity in the next phase of hoped-for political development – could actually undermine the prospect of eventual agreement.

Better then, perhaps, to discard name-calling and abuse, allow Dr Paisley to conduct his own internal debate, and acknowledge that there is much in the current state-of-play to concern even some enthusiasts for a new deal.

Interestingly he notes that Downing Street spin is not helping individuals inside the party come to a settled view about the quality of the deal on offer. A deal which may have more to commend it than the widespread suspicion of Downing Street’s possible ulterior motives is allowing for.

By contrast no one in the leadership is remotely threaten by the notion of a plan B:

…the DUP leadership is as unimpressed by suggestions that “Plan B” can ever amount to tacit Joint British/Irish Authority, as it is about the much-hyped British/Sinn Féin deal over the relationship between the PSNI and MI5.

But…

…the widespread perception within the republican community may be that, in real terms, the Adams leadership has already gone through the pain barrier. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, like Mr Blair, certainly appears to anticipate that changes in attitudes to the PSNI will swiftly follow on foot of the ardfheis.

Indeed, Mr Blair’s insistence that full support for the police can still facilitate devolution by March 26th might seem to suggest – contrary to the ardfheis motion – that Martin McGuinness will be able to take the pledge of office promising to uphold the rule of law and support the PSNI by that date.

If he cannot (whether because of Sinn Féin’s conditions – or because in such circumstances they choose to interpret the pledge itself as conditional) that will not be a problem for Dr Paisley, though it would certainly torpedo Mr Blair’s March deadline.

Recent changes to the deal previously on offer have changed the substance and trajectory of this process…

But Mr Blair has ascertained the direction of travel and, though grinding slow, the process has moved on significantly. Even if interrupted by temporary breakdown on March 26th, the prime minister can calculate that Mr Adams has nowhere else to go and that for Dr Paisley – for whom, unlike Mr Adams, devolution is actually a strategic goal – the question is probably no longer “if”, but “when”.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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