Elections and Battles: tactics and strategy

One of the most celebrated military generals of antiquity was Hannibal. He annihilated several Roman armies, possibly most famously with the Double envelopment at Cannae which is still studied as an archetype for a successful battle. However, brilliant as Hannibal’s tactics were, his long term strategy was flawed. He fought in Italy for years and was eventually worn down by a foe (the Romans) who simply would not give up. At the end it was Carthage, not Rome which was destroyed.
The DUP frequently extol for us how well they have done in Stormont. They claim to have ended the era of pushover unionism and the endless litany of humiliating concessions meekly yet gracelessly delivered by the hapless lundy Trimble. The DUP can claim (with some justification) to have significantly improved on the Belfast Agreement in the St Andrew’s agreement. They can also claim with very considerable justification to have drawn Sinn Fein into a governmental structure and to have out manoeuvred them within it. Just like Hannibal at Cannae they drew Sinn Fein in and have surrounded them. The Irish language act has gone nowhere, for the mean time we have no policing and justice devolved. Academic selection has sort of survived though the epic mess which that has involved conjures up more the appalling stalemate of Verdun than any heroic victory. Overall though as a number of DUP commentators have said on this site and elsewhere the DUP are winning, the tactics are good.

Inevitably this being my and not Andrew Charles’s blog there is a ‘but.’

The but is the same but as with Hannibal: the tactics are good, the strategy is flawed and the litany of victories which various DUPers wheel out on each occasion we debate these issues merely serve to illustrate how far that strategy has failed.

Not so long ago DUP manifestos included pledges that we would not be ruled by a power sharing government containing unrepentant terrorists and once we were told that republicans would have to repent in sack cloth and ashes. The Armani suits favoured by Sinn Fein may frequently be charcoal grey but that does not seem quite the same thing. (I still prefer Paul Smith)

The DUP’s strategy changed (at least in public) after St. Andrew’s and whatever the tactical victories since; there are those of us who feel that the new strategy is completely flawed. Of course at St Andrew’s I would also argue that the DUP’s tactics failed them and we ended up with a situation whereby a Sinn Fein first and not merely deputy first minister is a realistic possibility. In the case of St Andrew’s the DUP was like the Wermacht in 1941. Having made the error of deciding to fight on two fronts they left the start of Barbarossa too late in the year. In a very real way the fate of Nazi Germany was sealed on Mid summer’s night 1941. Wrong strategy: Wrong tactics.

Some in the DUP have suggested that all this is in the past. The most talented DUP commentator on this site (Bigger Picture) recently suggested this. He may be correct. However, there are other people who have a different strategy. One problem is that evey unionist group which has negotiated a flawed agreement has come to claim that it has achieved the best possible option for the unionist population and that any improvement is impossible. I suspect that those who make such claims may cone to almost delude themselves into believing it: unfortunately delusions are not reality. These were exactly the claims made by Trimble after the Belfast agreement debacle and the DUP quite correctly rubbished them. Then the DUP demonstrated just how useless Trimble’s negotiating skills were by getting a rather better deal. However, there are those of us who feel that for all the DUP’s tactical gains, St Andrew’s was still a defeat for unionism. Kursk was less of an obvious defeat for the Germans than Stalingrad. However, some would argue it was actually at least as significant.

There are also unionists prepared to offer a different vision than the DUP’s The CU’s seem to be moving towards a new strategy for Northern Ireland though the exact tenants of their proposals and the effect if any on the current Stormont arrangements are as yet unclear.

The TUV position is, however, more straightforward and is to be honest little or no different from the DUP position of a scant few years ago: indeed the position the DUP held at the last set of elections. (It is also incidentally the same position as the UUP held until Trimble’s “leadership”). I will not bore you by rehearsing it in detail but the point is that it is a strategy held by all the major unionist parties until comparatively recently and by the DUP until St. Andrews. The DUP at the time variously told us that St Andrews was a great advance and simultaneously told us that it was the best they could do. Subsequently they have been more effusive about the supposed victory won at St Andrews and the supposedly victorious application of their tactics.

I do not doubt the DUP’s claim to have out manoeuvred SF within the executive. However, there remains this issue of the new strategy. That has never been put to unionist population of Northern Ireland. Whilst the DUP may not like it, there may be some who remain unconvinced by the Hannibal-esque leadership of Peter Robinson. As such whatever Lord Morrow may think Jim Allister needs to put the alternative strategy before the unionist electorate. This election is not of course merely a referendum on the St Andrews modification of the Belfast Agreement; however, that is one of its functions and to be honest if the DUP win well they will of course pronounce it as such. I remain concerned that Robinson’s vision is strategically flawed and that one day in the near future we will look back at the current DUP victories real and purported in the same way as Hannibal and Carthage’s: impressive but ultimately reversed, defeated and destroyed. One function of this election is to see whether unionists wish to stick with Hannibal’s party or look for their own Scipio Africanus to combine tactical and strategic abilities.

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