The long defeat to victory

At the climax of the trial scene of the Merchant of Venice (Act 4: scene 1), Shylock is about to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio’s breast which will inevitably result in his death. Then at the moment of his triumph over his hated enemy, Shylock is defeated by Portia and his defeat becomes absolute, presaged by the chilling command from Portia “Tarry, Jew.”

The failure of SF to force the DUP to accept a date for the devolution of Policing and Justice, combined with a lack of progress on other issues important to republicans such as the Maze stadium and the Irish language have been well documented on slugger and elsewhere. Whether or not the forthcoming IMC report is designed to help the DUP agree to P&J devolution, and whether or not the DUP accept it; Gerry Adams has again been talking about the possibility of the executive falling. As Pete Baker has repeatedly pointed out, however, the DUP never agreed to a specific date and seem to be winning on this issue.

Many have suggested that this set of events demonstrates the superior position that the DUP are now in at Stormont and also the failure of Adams and McGuinness to negotiate adequately at St. Andrew’s; failing to get the DUP to agree to definite commitments and dates on issues important to republicans. As a minimum it has been suggested to show that the mutual veto is, on these issues, playing into the hands of the DUP. Adams’s only option now seems to be, as Pete has suggested, to threaten to take the ball away.

However, negotiations and agreements with the other NI parties have never been the final arbiter of events here: at the end of the day (as Stormont discovered in 1972) Westminster is sovereign and short of us declaring UDI the British (and Irish) governments do represent a court of final appeal for the Northern Irish parties. Both London and Dublin have suggested on a number of occasions that they would like to see P&J devolved, an Irish Language Act passed and the Maze site developed. Following the negotiations after SF’s last threat to collapse the executive Peter Robinson and McGuinness appeared willing to resolve their parties’ differences. I noted at the time that someone must have won and someone lost in those negotiations. Now it seems that the situation is as deadlocked as it was two months ago.

If SF did collapse the agreement one of a number of things might happen: the governments might simply decide that the whole concept of devolution for NI is a bad job and return to Direct Rule, whether that Direct Rule would be to the benefit or detriment of one side or the other is difficult to tell. More likely, however, is that a further set of negotiations would be attempted in order to get the Flying Dutchman up and sailing again.

Many have suggested that SF would return to such a negotiating table in a greatly weakened position: they would have long since given away the trump card of IRA decommissioning and the possible threat of violence is less credible than it has been previously. It has been suggested that the governments would be angered by SF’s collapse of the executive as would the NI electorate and serious consideration might be given to a voluntary coalition which would very likely exclude SF. However, the governments probably still fear the resumption of violence and even if they believe that the current SF leadership could not manage to go back to war they might feel that further humiliation of SF could lead to its fragmentation and the emergence of a credible republican terrorist threat rather than the deeply unpleasant but fairly ineffectual one posed by the Real / Continuity IRA. In addition as I have pointed out the governments are fairly supportive of SF’s shopping list, currently opposed by the DUP. As such if SF collapsed the agreement the governments might conceivably see them as the aggrieved party and might be supportive of at least some SF demands being accepted before the executive were recommenced. It is not now as if the DUP can claim that they would not compromise in any new negotiations: they threw that card away (in my view very cheaply) some time ago.

SF may very well merely be sabre rattling. If they are not and do collapse the executive they might well suffer in whatever comes out of such a collapse. However, it is also possible, however, unlikely that they might gain from collapse and further negotiations. That is a possibility that cannot have escaped either SF or the DUP leadership. For the DUP there are possible pitfalls in them continuing to hold out from SF demands.

As a pretty unreconstructed unionist I hope that the DUP give in to none of SF’s demands and that if SF do collapse power sharing that they lose from it. Such may well seem the most likely outcome. However, Antonio’s death and Shylock’s victory seemed the most likely outcome in the Merchant of Venice. To change the analogy: SF may well be beaten on these issues; that is exactly what the Germans and almost everyone else thought about the Russians in high summer 1942 on the road to Stalingrad.