Alex Kane has a long memory, and an ear for detail. In his Newsletter column yesterday he picked up some interesting detail from the past and contrasts it with the present and the future. He starts with the air brushing of ‘progressive’ unionism’s embrace of powersharing and an Irish dimension some thirty four years ago. Now he is detecting some ‘humbug’ in the DUP’s manifesto and public statements.
The first time I voted was in the February 1974 General Election. I was still living in Armagh and voted for Harold McCusker (a man for whom I had enormous respect), although I would have voted for a pro-Sunningdale Agreement unionist candidate had there been one. Even at that stage I knew
that there would be no settlement in Northern Ireland which didn’t embrace power-sharing and an “Irish dimension.”
But that doesn’t mean that I buy into Seamus Mallon’s mischievously snarly and entirely inaccurate view that the Belfast Agreement is “Sunningdale for slow learners.” It was the SDLP who wrecked any prospect of Sunningdale working, because it was the SDLP who insisted on a Council of Ireland even
though it was clear that many Faulkner moderates were having problems with it. It tends to be forgotten that both the UUP Executive and the Ulster
Unionist Council had endorsed power-sharing at the tail-end of 1973; it was specifically the Council of Ireland that was rejected by the UUC in January
1974, a defeat which caused Faulkner’s resignation as leader of the UUP and led to electoral disaster for pro-Agreement unionism a few weeks later.
Anyway, my first election was a genuinely exciting one. Big decisions were being made and new parties were staking out their own positions and
approaches. The DUP, in particular, was beginning to find its feet, helped immeasurably by its participation in the United Ulster Unionist Coalition.
Paisley had already established a reputation as a ferocious opponent of liberal, ecumenical unionism and within a year, having seen the
quasi-paramilitary Vanguard Party implode over voluntary coalition, he was to become the central dominating figure of hardline unionism.
Put bluntly, Ian Paisley opposed almost everything which smacked of concession or bridge building. Initiative after initiative was held up to
scorn and leading figures within the UUP were dismissed as Lundy, Judas, “feather-bedded traitors” or Quislings. His main political preoccupation was
saving Ulster from one thing or another, while his electoral ambition consisted of nothing more than ridiculing and eventually eclipsing the UUP.
Yet here he is, almost fifty years down the line, spearheading an election campaign in which he insists that the conditions are almost right to have
Martin McGuinness as his deputy First Minister, and Gerry Kelly, Mitchel McLaughlin and Conor Murphy as Executive colleagues!
I have argued in this column for many years that the DUP would do “everything required of them to ensure the survival of the Assembly and the other institutions”; and would, if they found themselves as the lead voice of unionism, “keep the Belfast Agreement in situ while claiming that they had made it more acceptable to unionists.” That is exactly what the party has done. And they did it precisely because they had no choice in the matter, for it was never going to be possible to tear up the existing Agreement without bringing down the Assembly. Some may describe the DUP as hypocrites, opportunists and self-serving. I couldn’t possibly comment.
But there is a massive humbug at the very core of the DUP’s manifesto, their pretence that they have “a veto” over every aspect of the process. They
don’t. Yes, there is a veto, but it is a mutual veto, as effective from Sinn Fein’s side of the Executive table as it is from the DUP’s. Gerry Adams has
said that a Sinn Fein/DUP coalition will involve “a battle a day.” Peter Robinson has said “this cannot be a lasting and enduring form of government…it cannot be a permanent structure.”
So, after almost a decade of telling us that there was an alternative to the Belfast Agreement and that they would negotiate a fairer, better deal, the
DUP has delivered an impermanent government based on mutual veto!
All of which may explain why the DUP is now so keen to take the Finance ministry and why Ian Paisley has let it be known that a “substantial financial package” from Gordon Brown will be a deal breaker. Peter Robinson, after all, has already welcomed the Irish government’s promise to pump billions into cross-border projects. In other words, it looks suspiciously like the DUP is preparing to buy its way out of the embarrassing reality that it hasn’t, in fact, made a button of worthwhile difference to the structures or outworkings of the Belfast Agreement. The strategy seems to be one of spend, spend, spend and hope that everything turns out alright.
Helpfully for them, Sinn Fein has an almost identical approach to the problem, with Adams insisting that the “British should continue to pick up the tab” for the foreseeable future.
A “battle a day” in a form of government that “cannot be lasting,” is not conducive to stable, accountable, democratic administration. A government which is dependent for PR success on doling out buckets of cash from Dublin and London is a government which will quickly become utterly divorced from political and economic reality. A coalition based on the mutually loathing, veto wielding Sinn Fein and DUP, is a coalition which will teeter on the brink of permanent collapse.
This process can only survive if it has a strong voice of reason at its centre. It will only make progress if the partners choose to work together rather than regard themselves as forced together. A clear majority of the electorate wants devolved government; one which will address the socio/economic realities of everyday life. That being the case, the electorate needs to vote for an outcome in which the antagonisms between Sinn Fein and the DUP will be tempered by the cooperative tendencies of the UUP and SDLP. Apathy, on this occasion, will prove very destructive.
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