If SF did collapse the executive

The latest remarks by SF about collapsing the executive have already been covered by Pete Baker. I have always tended to the analysis that the threat of collapse and direct rule will cause the DUP to make at least some concessions. That is the logic which I feel inevitably results from the fear of Plan B which Paisley used as one of the major drivers forcing him to accept the agreement in the first place. If the executive does collapse (still in my view the less likely scenario) Jim Allister’s latest comment that the whole thing is untenable would be pretty resolutely proven and I suspect would be accepted in large measure (though possibly grudgingly) by the DUP. Of course the DUP can and will claim that it was better to try devolution and that unionism is in a stronger position for it having been tried by them. That would then be a battle from the past: Either way, it is likely that the practical differences between the positions of the various unionist parties would be reduced. Following any collapse there would be likely to be a period of Direct Rule and further negotiations. I want to suggest that any possible negotiations should see an outbreak of peace between unionists. I accept that this is futuring but I do feel that unionists need to consider options for every eventuality.Since the immediate cause of any collapse would be the devolution of policing and justice, it is very likely that the DUP would come under additional pressure to accept such devolution, possibly helped by various strange opinion polls in the likes of the Belfast Telegraph purporting to show support for P&J devolution within the unionist community. No doubt the additional issues of the Irish language and the Maze stadium would also raise their heads. My analysis and I guess at some level SF’s is that all these would be involved in a further attempt by the governments to force the DUP to accept compromise on these issues. Others have suggested that actually the governments would be annoyed with SF over their collapsing the agreement and would not be of a mind to entertain further SF demands.

Either way following a collapse, it would be important for the DUP not to enter any negotiations simply seeking to defend the current status quo; nor should the only concession the DUP demand be an end to the army council. If SF collapse the agreement a great deal more would need to be looked at. Rather the DUP should use possible future negotiations not to continue with the current Stormont but instead to propose a more radical agenda. They should push the idea of voluntary coalition seeing as the mandatory coalition would have been shown to have failed. The governments (if they blamed SF for the collapse) might be willing to consider this. That always ignores the issue of whether or not the SDLP would be willing to enter into such an a coalition but that might (only might) not be the stumbling block it used to be with an SDLP under Hume. I am happy to be corrected by SDLP types on this but currently Durkan is sounding less than impressed by SF’s position. Whether or not that would make him willing to contemplate being in government without SF is of course a very different matter.

In any future negotiations the other unionist parties (the TUV and UUP) would, in my view, be best advised to be supportive of any hardline stand by the DUP. Such support would be extremely useful to Robinson. He would then be able to say that all strands of unionism were solidly behind the DUP’s position: that it was SF, which had collapsed the agreement without good reason, and as such it should be SF and not unionists who should be pressurised and politically threatened.

Such a stance from the UUP (and TUV) would of course be a clear contrast to what happened when the UUP were involved in negotiations as the largest unionist party. Then the DUP tended to sit on the sidelines and denounce whatever had been decided, though in fairness there was, by the end of Trimble’s tenure, rather a lot to be denounced. Clearly the other unionist parties might be tempted to do that again and indeed if the DUP did make major concessions they would be just right to do so. However, if the DUP do try to hold the line properly they should find support, not carping, from the other unionist parties. They should also enter negotiations told that if they come away with success that will be recognised and supported by the TUV and UUP. Such a change in tenor would be difficult in view of the recently fractious nature of relationships between the unionist parties (poor relations which are the fault of all the parties). However, in any post collapse negotiations all that would be best to be forgotten and instead a cooperative atmosphere would provide the strongest bulwark against further republican demands and the best spring board from which to advance the position of unionism.

There is of course a way of maximising UUP and TUV support for the DUP in any future negotiation process: that would require true strategic vision from Robinson. Vision I have previously accused him of lacking but which he could then show quite brilliantly. Robinson could in any negotiations following a collapse bring UUP and TUV representatives with him. He and the DUP could suggest that they have tried the current agreement but due to SF’s refusal to take part in meaningful coalition government: a new agreement is need. In such a scenario one party alone should not represent unionism but instead all unionists should have a say in crafting unionism’s proposals for the future. That would strengthen Robinson’s position and would also (to an extent) guard him against inter-party squabbles and attempts to gain advantage at the DUP’s expense.

Such a suggestion would of course chime with previous DUP suggestions that they, in the long term, favoured voluntary coalition and would also accord with Robinson’s previously declared wish to have unionist unity. Supported by Allister and Empey and faced with a united unionist block supporting a radical renegotiation of the agreement it is possible that the tables could be turned on SF and they could find that collapsing the agreement would have been a remarkably bad idea for them.

Of course the threats of collapse could well all be a bluff from SF but if that is so it is a bluff designed to get support from its own hardliners as well as extracting concessions from the DUP. SF seem to calculate that the DUP greatly fear collapse and an election as they fear the TUV. Although republicans and unionists are notoriously bad at analysing the other community’s position, that might be a reasonable calculation. However showing to republicans that unionists already have plans afoot if SF does collapse the executive and that those plans would be far from SF’s liking might help show republicans that their threats could be a very double edged sword.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.