I know some object to my using literary and historical allusions but this is too good an opportunity to miss. Has what we have witnessed at Stormont been Much Ado about Nothing where my copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare says Comedy is tragedy averted. In that play people conspire to make Beatrice and Benedick fall in love and then there are twists and turns with another couple not getting married but it all ends happily. I would suggest, however, that what we saw this week was far from much ado about nothing and a battle was fought. A battle where I do not know who won; a battle that very few know who won except those who fought it. I suspect however, sooner or later, we will find the winners and losers.To analyse it maybe we could look at the combatants though I suspect we will be none the wiser after we have finished.
Turning first to Sinn Fein: I am not well placed to assess why SF felt the need to have this battle. They may have simply been stirring the pot, maybe they wanted concessions, maybe they also needed to keep the grass roots happy; I will leave others to speculate on the motives. It seems, however, that they did threaten to not nominate and hence, potentially bring the whole agreement crashing down; then they pulled back.
In the First World War the Germans very cleverly attacked the iconic French fortress of Verdun knowing the French would feel obliged to defend it at all costs. The French duly did, practically wrecking their army in the process; it was one of the few battles in that war where the defenders lost more troops than the attacking army. The Germans, however, became rather too keen on winning as a matter of pride which helped make their clever tactic less effective and they also lost vast numbers of men.
Maybe SF knew that the DUP feared an election and never intended to force one but by threatening it have gained some useful concessions. Equally, however, maybe they became too obsessed with their game and have walked away with nothing, having been faced down by the DUP. Who won depends on what has or has not been agreed upon and indeed whether or not SF can hold or cause the British government to hold the DUP to any putative deal. There could even have been a side deal between Brown and SF but we all remember that the words of a Prime Minister may not be worth the white board they are written on.
Turning to the DUP: They may have triumphantly faced down SF. They have been doing fairly well in blocking things they dislike in the assembly. This whole episode could and I am sure will be spun by them as a fit of pique from SF which was faced down by Robinson and the DUP emerged having had a further triumph. Equally, however, if they gave something or agreed to something they are going to be seen to have been defeated. The Zulus won a famous victory against the British at Isandlwana. However, the Zulus lost thousands of men killed and injured and it was a rather pyrrhic victory. If Robinson has agreed to a compromise and implements it, is forced to do so by the British government or indeed the government go over their heads then it will have been a defeat. Certainly his speech today would rival the Oracle at Delphi in how it could be interpreted with regard to P+J, ILA etc.
Even the more minor parties may have won or lost from this. The SDLP has accused SF of “political showboating.” If indeed SF have gained nothing then the SDLP may have a point and may gain a little from SF looking foolish and unable to successfully defeat the DUP. Equally, however, if SF come away with something from this over the next few months it may be seen that SF can deliver nationalist aspirations in a way that the SDLP condemned and could and would not have done.
The UUP are of course in exactly the same position as the SDLP. If the DUP do give something then the UUP can say that the DUP need not denounce them for previous compromises and might even say that unlike the DUP they (the UUP) were willing to collapse the executive. Of course the DUP counter will be that there were multiple UUP U turns and if the DUP do give away nothing then they will be able to point out that SF were so annoyed by lack of republican progress that they threatened to destroy the agreement and were defeated in a way that trimble never managed to hold for long. Clearly the TUV will like the UUP wait to see any weakening of the DUPs position in the following months. Certainly quite a lot of Mr. Robinsons speech seemed to be about people he did not intend to waste time looking over his shoulder at.
So this may have been all a bit of a storm in a tea cup and it may have been a political game but this was a game of high stakes and a zero sum game. Who won this game is not immediately apparent and it is unlikely to become clear for some time. However, I have no doubt some won and some lost. I also have little doubt that time will show us the victors and vanquished. If SF gained anything of any substance they won and the DUP lost: if they did not they lost and the DUP won. That is of course the dichotomous nature of our idiotic system of government and whatever the suggestions about reviewing the nature of government I cannot see an end to the mandatory coalition anytime soon. The Flying Dutchman sails mournfully onwards until the next time.