No olive branch for Sinn Fein today from the First Minister

Well, no hints of a breakthrough in the Executive deadlock that I could pick up in the main speeches at the DUP conference this morning, despite the reported hopes of progress under the surface. Perhaps it was too much to expect for such an occasion. Still, overall Peter Robinson rationed his quota of partisan applause lines in his first leader’s speech to his party conference, at least by the traditional Paisley standards of the day before yesterday. But he had nothing new to offer from the DUP on ending the paralysis.

“I want to see policing and justice devolved to NI… We will deliver on our manifesto commitments .. But we will not support the devolution of policing until the community has confidence in the structures and in those who operate them.”

Frustrating though that he neglected to reformulate what “community confidence.. in those who operate them ” entails and what precisely Sinn Fein and the IRA have to do to win it , presumably because he wants to leave the details to the private talks or is playing a very risky game of calling Sinn Fein’s bluff.
It’s just occurred to me.. Did the milder than usual savaging of the UUs hold out hopes of a deal over the European contest at Jim Allister’s expense and then contribute to an easing of the deadlock?

“ There will be no Justice Minister who does not command the support of the wider community.”

But surely that’s why Alliance holding the post was a runner although the terms aren’t agreed? At least he avoided the obvious point he might have made in a party speech that tomorrow’s SF event will do nothing to increase that “confidence.”

Adopting a statesmanlike tone appropriate for a First Minster, he hoped to offer a short term package of measures to alleviate the impact of the financial crisis in a few weeks’ time.

By that yardstick devolution will be judged…. We will work for the prosperity of all the people not just because it is right but because it’s good politics”

Mr Robinson still managed some crowd pleasing jeer lines at Sinn Fein’s expense ( did I detect a suppressed yawn from Nigel?) , repeatedly contrasting the DUP’s alleged resolve in the St Andrew’s negotiations with the Ulster Unionists’ retreats in the face of Sinn Fein’s “threats”

“Who’s in retreat now, who is threatening to withdraw? It’s now Sinn Fein who are behaving like spoiled children. Now the splits are within Sinn Fein. The old guard has raised his bearded head. Now it’s a case of Gerry against the pacemakers.”

He went on to complain that the media had paid “insufficient attention” to the DUP’s unfinished business, singling out the BBC’s Noel Thompson. (Good interview I thought, Robinson was pressed hard and came out of it OK. Although he bristled a bit, I wouldn’t think he’s seriously aggrieved. Certainly he’s no reason to be). His list was fascinating.

Reforming the public sector (very difficult but non-partisan).
“Resolving the parades issue,” (Nigel Dodds called again for the abolition of the Parades Commission and called permission for the SF protest “ disgraceful”).
And at the top, “Reforming the system of government away from the mandatory coalition.
I

If the DUP are actually bracketing P&J with the parades issue that (quote), “ allows the Orangemen to walk down the Garvaghy Road” ( loud cheers) and change the governance system, it’s very hard to see how political progress can be made. Before we get near reform of the system of governance, can we imagine a set of changes to parades regulation that SF and even the SDLP might buy in any deal over J&P? No doubt Noel Thompson and all others won’t miss the point.

A final point about Chris’s suggestion that the DUP is receiving too much attention as a result of pressure. I don’t know if there’s an agenda here but on a scale of one to ten of pressure on the BBC, I would rate this one at about 2. Jim Fitzpatrick made clear that the conferences all four main parties would get some continuous coverage. The BBC would do themselves a favour if they made it clear they were doing this on news value, in the light of the political paralysis. Cover one and you have to cover all four.

  • Rory

    What struck me watching it on television was the low key, almost half-hearted response to whatever was said, either by Dodds or Robinson. The only piece of Robinson’s that met with more (and then only a little more) than a perfunctory, “harumph, harumph” was his “then they’ll get to see a real army” spiel. The ending attempt at a standing ovation seemed as though rheumatoid arthritis was endemic among DUP supporters.

    This muted response may well be, as Brian suggests, due to a statesman-like caution on Robinson’s part which avoided the full-throttle Paisleyite sabre-rattling which the faithful had come to expect and thus reflected a disappointment of expectation but nevertheless I did detect a nervousness that was almost palpable even on television and that the faithful are really waiting to see how Robinson jumps.

    He really is in a bind with the TUV snapping at his heels. If he is to avoid what he condemned as the inevitable outcome of TUV policy – direct rule with a greater RoI input – then he must acceed to the devolution of policing and justice, and soon at that, but then if he does he falls into the trap of practically ensuring that which he condemns in the TUV in tactics concerning forthcoming European elections and allow Sinn Féin to ascend to position of the major NI party in Europe.

    Still, Robinson has the ability to impress. Poor Dodds wouldn’t get elected to a parish council in England (unless he joined the LibDems, their supporters will vote for any idiot).

  • Rory

    I just realised that my above comments may have had the effect of causing Turgon to crack a smile. Which is a nice playing out of the law of unintended consequences.

    And which is nice anyhow,

  • slug

    I thought Dodds was an eloquent speaker and I thought conference responded very warmly to him. I didn’t think the response from the audience was muted.

    Mind you the Polish guy got the greatest cheer when he ended his speech with “No surrender”, copying Margaret Ritchie’s tactics at the UUP conference.

  • George

    What I found interesting was the BBC’s one-line report of it:

    DUP leader Peter Robinson says it would be a disaster if unionists walked away from the Executive.

  • Brian Walker

    Rory thanks for the TUV connection and Turgon thought. I’m sure he’ll break into text. slug I agree that Nigel’s barnstormer went down well. I was referring only to the Leader’s more subdued contribution. I’m suspect the contrast was deliberate and co-ordinated. George, the BBC’s first report was taken from a Press Association snap for the national lunchtime news. Robinson’s speech awkwardly straddled the lunchtime slot. I agree it was an odd line to take but it was at least coherent. I assume they had an advance text and could have crafted a stronger piece. However such a piece would needed more time to explain to the UK wide audience and time wasn’t available, I guess. More will follow I hope.

  • slug

    Rory

    ” If he is to avoid what he condemned as the inevitable outcome of TUV policy – direct rule with a greater RoI input – then he must acceed to the devolution of policing and justice, and soon at that, but then if he does he falls into the trap of practically ensuring that which he condemns in the TUV in tactics concerning forthcoming European elections and allow Sinn Féin to ascend to position of the major NI party in Europe. ”

    Today’s conference makes me think they won’t relax their triple lock on policing powers (or agree a date) before June 2009.

    Regarding topping the poll, with TUV in the field I don’t see the DUP holding on to top spot against SF. So I think the warning that SF could go top is being made as a weapon against TUV to keep them out.

  • Comrade Stalin

    slug,

    Agreed, I don’t believe the DUP are going to shift until the European election is out of the way, and the state of Jim Allister’s rapport with the electorate becomes more clear.

  • I am all in favour of a system whereby several parties representing a disparate electorate are guaranteed at least roughly equal numbers of seats in Parliament, in government, and in the Cabinet.

    But I have in mind half a dozen parties out of the dozen or so that would seriously contest any General Election.

    Whereas in Northern Ireland, the whole thing is specifically set up so that all the parties are in government all the time.

    And in that case, who is asking any questions?

  • Rory

    Slug,

    I can see that your strategy would be the better one for the DUP to adopt in order not only to minimise the TUV threat but to place the blame on them if, or more likely, when SF take the European gold medal, but do you really think that they can continue as the leading body in a non-functioning executive until June 2009? Would not the sheer practicality of events demand that they fold up, throw up their hands and say, “It’s impossible. We cannot continue” and then go to either the table or the country, or both?

    As Sammy McNally etc. has consistently and tirelessly argued, Sinn Féin can afford to wait. Every day that passes without the DUP living up to, certainly what nationalists (and the Brits and Free Staters) see, as all of the St Andrew’s Agreement only serves to strengthen their electoral hold and weakens that of the DUP.

    I was interested to note that both Brian and yourself saw Dodd’s speech in a completely contrary light to me and I don’t think that that difference in perception is totally accounted for by any subjective political bias on my part, although it would be foolish to ignore that completely. I didn’t watch the conference in order to find shies at which to hurl but really in an attempt to gauge the strength of argument presented, the quality of the talent that delivered it and the reception it had from the floor. Admittedly my experience of DUP conferences over the years has been largely limited to mere minutes of edited highlights of the Big Man giving it welly so I cannot be said to have based my judgement upon a great deal of experience. Let us just say then that he didn’t float my boat.

  • Mick Fealty

    The speech is online here: http://url.ie/urv

  • slug

    \”do you really think that they can continue as the leading body in a non-functioning executive until June 2009? Would not the sheer practicality of events demand that they fold up, throw up their hands and say, “It’s impossible. We cannot continue” and then go to either the table or the country, or both?

    As Sammy McNally etc. has consistently and tirelessly argued, Sinn Féin can afford to wait. Every day that passes without the DUP living up to, certainly what nationalists (and the Brits and Free Staters) see, as all of the St Andrew’s Agreement only serves to strengthen their electoral hold and weakens that of the DUP. ”

    Hi Rory

    1. No I don’t think the DUP would throw up their hands and collpse the executive just because they can’t have executive meetings. That wouldn’t be like them nor would it fit with their speeches today. The whole business of Govt can go on indefinitely without Executive meetings, it just becomes a government with no new policy changes; not ideal but most of what government does doesn’t actually need to change except slowly. We have gone nearly 6 months without an Executive. June is another 7 months.

    If a real emergency were to arise that needed an Executive meeting then I doubt if Sinn Féin would block it. Certainly controversial things like Maze development and Catriona Ruanes plans get delayed but I don’t think the DUP mind these things being delayed–expecially since the DUP are calling for the Executive to meet to deal with them.

    2. I don’t see that this stalemate is necessarily going to harm the DUP. The DUP were today again pointing out they actually negotiated this triple lock on the devolution of policing and justice and that Sinn Féin are trying to push them around.

  • Mick Fealty

    I think people are making the mistake (IMHO) of viewing this speech through the prism of one issue. One of the early phrases that leaps out at me is the first time he mentions leadership: “we will not solve the problems of tomorrow by re-fighting the battles of yesterday”. Check out: ‘A Long Peace’, Chapter Four, Creative Battlegrounds.

    He goes on to contrast where he sees his own party’s position with that of Sinn Fein’s:

    There was a time, not so long ago, when unionism, under another party’s leadership, had lost its confidence and lost its way. People were talking about how Republicans were receiving daily concessions and dictating the political agenda; people said that Republicans always triumphed in negotiations and they argued they were on a trajectory to achieving a united Ireland.

    But that was then and this is now, and no one is saying those things any more.

    Instead people are looking in the Sinn Fein ranks at people who remain trapped in a time-warp, fighting battles they have long since lost, pursuing aims nobody really cares about, prisoners of their own outdated political ideology, not having noticed that the world has moved on.

    More later…

  • Brian Walker

    Mick, Yes, its fair to point to Peter’s long term contexualising, but this would be more convincing if it wasn’t presented alongside a good deal of partisan crowing at SF’s expense. Ok, we mustn’t forget this is a party conference and we must allow for a little triumphalism, but seeing the speech through the prism of a four month long deadlock is only to be expected. Perhaps things will fall into place somehow, quite soon. If so, the DUP leadership must avoid the Paisley-era error of failing the prepare their supporters for the eventual solution. That’s why I was disappointed not hear some reformulation of the DUP terms for J&P;. It implied no quick fix. If there’s to be a longer delay, let’s hope tomorrow doesn’t provide ammunition for a whole new folklore of whataboutery.

    However, looking at it from the outside, I begin to think for the first time that the shadow boxing is turning into a real fight. The spectre of deadlines and the Downing St rollercoaster is coming alive again. This time, suspension isn’t so easy but if there’s persistent no-show, either suspension or even dissolution will happen.

  • Sam Flanagan

    They still have not named their Euro candidate/ sacrifice, does any journalist ever ask them who it is going to be?

  • Mick Fealty

    Brian,

    One thing to note, is that this is the first local convention, conference, ard fheis to be properly televised in NI. Not sure the participants are used to getting watched (and judged) by TV cameras. Like the first BB, it may give away both more and less that the watchers first presume.

    The contextualisation is important, for reasons I’ll go into later. Re any possible reformulation of the P & J equation, well, the most convincing line I’ve heard on Slugger has been the idea that once the European elections are out of the road, things can happen.

    It would be politically weak of Robinson to re-formulate now because: 1) it would take pressure off SF and Adams and shift it to himself and his party; 2) and in a year’s time, things can change (as we saw with IRA decommissioning).

    Time/confidence is the key dispute at the moment. Although he makes no mention of it in the Hearts and Minds interview (that I can recall).

    And here’s a thought for Sammy and other noble stalwarts of the cause. The media’s focus on the DUP as the cause of the problem does not seem to be doing him any harm (though he needs to keep that temper of his under better control if it really wants his messages to hit home).

    Without giving hostages to fortune, and to look for an admittedly loose analogue, given the hammering Obama took from Hillary, I thought it would give McCain lots of ammunitition to hit him with. But, and I’m not making any predictions here about the result on Tuesday night, that earlier ruck seems only to have made him the sharper for the main event.

  • Brian Walker

    The problem is how much time has the Assembly got, how much does it deserve? This is Alice in Wonderland politics. It’s far too long to leave NI ungoverned until the European elections in June – a full year of deadlock. And all for the self-serving luxury of topping the poll. Might the UUs oblige soon and make the DUP feel more secure? The DUP leadership seem to be angling for that. But if the paralysis goes on much longer, I can’t see how it reflects well on either side. SF have a good case in asking, what do the DUP really want – IRA men in blazers? OK, why not deliver them? If the on-off rhythm of 2000-07 is repeated yet again this time on full pay, the Assembly’s reputation will sink to a new low of public dissociation. I can’t believe Robinson and McGuinness want that and lack the nous to get out of it. The best hope is for whatever conversations are going on to produce. Or perhaps they’ll stagger on with a sort of shadow Executive and bilateral meetings, winking at the voters that this is nearly as good as the real thing. But it’s pathetic really. The differences of substance are far less than Trimble faced. Can anybody tell me, what exactly is the main instance of substance? Rubbing SF’s nose in it isn’t exactly substance. Peter has produced a rival list he wants discussed but none of these are dealbreakers, they’re merely a diversionary agenda to soften the focus on the main issue. I despair of these people, all of them ever putting the interests of the people first, for all the lip-service they pay to them. Politics isn’t about impressing your mates with what a cunning devil you are. It’s about having a clear view of public service.

  • LURIG

    The problem with Robinson is that he can’t separate his DUP hat from his First Minister hat and comes across as First DUP Minister. This is where Paisley, for all faults, differed massively and reigned supreme. Paisley in his short tenet actually did a good job as First Minister and gave an air of leadership and representation for ALL. Robinson DOESN’T do this and forgets that that there is also another constituency outside the DUP backwoodsmen. His fear of Jim Allister and the TUV is setting his agenda towards Sinn Fein where ANY concession or agreement is seen as a loss. He needs to wise up and lighten up a bit as well because his dourness and lack of humour is a huge turn off. The other night, on Hearts & Minds, he was his “Folks On The Hill” cartoon character off to a tee. ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY whenever Noel Thompson hit him with a question he didn’t like. Robinson comes across as a bit of a rabbit caught in the headlights with neither the temperament, calmness nor social cuteness to be First Minister AND he takes any negative media question as a personal insult. As someone said he is an obvious No. 2 and it definately shows. I think while he is intelligent and was in charge of his brief as an ordinary Minister he is TOTALLY out of his depth as a leader and First Minister.

  • Mick Fealty

    Brian,

    This is the ultimate question that people are currently asking themselves. It’s problem the source of the greatest amount of scepticism in NI politics (and I don’t just mean amongst SF loyalists; lots of liberal Unionists are asking themselves the exact same question):

    “How much does it deserve?”

    I really wish our late mutual friend Vincent Hannah was here to answer that one. He cared more than most about such questions. But it is not down to mere journalists or humble bloggers to answer questions like that; but politicians.

    My suspicion is that it may come down to the number of ‘dimpled chads’.

  • slug

    “It’s far too long to leave NI ungoverned until the European elections in June – a full year of deadlock.”

    Any deadlock is too long. But we must sadly assume that parties will act selfishly. Will the voters punish the top two parties for the deadlock? Probably not. Therefore it will likely continue. I see reaching June 2009 without Executive as likely now.

    The BBC are reporting the DUP message was “no return to direct rule” which would be “madness”. A line that keeps hardliners and moderates together and the hardliners and moderates are probably happy with this situation for the next half year.

  • cynic

    “If the DUP are actually bracketing P&J;with the parades issue that (quote), “ allows the Orangemen to walk down the Garvaghy Road” ( loud cheers) and change the governance system, it’s very hard to see how political progress can be made.”

    Oh go on Brian. That’s real politics and I actually think its a very positive sign that clearly shows that the DUP want to negotiate.

    Each side has a wish list. The Great Leader is huffing and stomping his feet because he says it is all or nothing for SF – they want P&J;, ILA, Education, etc etc. He says this was all agreed at St Andrews but the evidence clearly shows otherwise. Now the DUPs have a wish list too. Suddenly Parades have been pulled out of the hat. There may be other issues too.

    The reality is that both parties will have things in their lists that they really, really want and things they are preaperd to give up. What they now have to do is negotiate, find common ground where they can and do a deal where they can’t. That’s real politics. Constitutionally, that’s what the system constrains them to do.

    Interesting too that Robinson focuses on Gerry as the blockage to progress. Perhaps SFs policy of having a leader who doesn’t lead in the assembly is showing cracks. There must be many frustrated younger members in SF who want a deal, want to move on but see this mess as negative and destructive and want the leadership to do some politics.

    Perhaps there is simply too much baggage at the top of SF now for a deal to be effective. Indeed, from a Unionist perspective, moving those who led the terror campaign out of the leadership might be the biggest sign to Unionists that things really have changed and that these are fellow Irishmen that they can really trust and do a deal with.

  • Brian Walker

    Well cynic, you make the best case for both parties’ politiking. But the longer the list, the longer the deadlock. Peter Robinson told us yesterday how difficult it all was and looks for a different, looser power sharing system. But almost certainly, it would still be the same old parties slugging it out. How many years of squabbling do these guys need before they face realities? Recent history tells us that before long the paralysis means a reversion to negotiations, rather than working through the Assembly system and putting the people first. Robinson saying the DUP won’t walk out is meaningless if the Executive fails to function.It’s only round one in the blame game. You might have thought that the people’s needs at this time of financial crisis might have been a strong enough incentive to keep the agreement on course, but no. Warm words only and it’s then back to the nursery.

    I agree entirely that SF going extra-parliamentary with today’s demo is a deplorable a sign of weakness. How ironic that the DUP and SF are both elephants terrified of mice, fearful of being outflanked. Only a year ago, both sides were boasting that St Andrews had put an end to that.

    What chance of a return to the Downing St circus?
    I’m grimly amused by participants in the Northern Ireland political scene still thinking they’re at the centre of the universe.They don’t seem to notice that both governments have other minor distractions to cope with, like the worst financial crisis in decades. Nor have the governments anything to offer the parties anyway except a cuff round the ear, followed by renewed direct rule. Mick, I don’t think any critic needs to feel humble, blogger or not. MSM and other case-hardened comment has been far too patient, holding back from “oh no not again” or taking part in arid point scoring in favour of one side or another. It’s time for a fight back in the public interest. What was a political tragedy first time round, this time is farce.