Godot, Donald Rumsfelt and P&J

One of Portora Royal School’s most famous sons, Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot which has been called “the most significant English language play of the 20th century” (though it was originally written in French). To try to describe what a Beckett play is about is almost to miss the point but essentially it follows two characters Vladimir and Estragon who are waiting for Godot who never comes.

Waiting for Policing and Justice devolution seems at times remarkably similar to waiting for Godot and just like in the play when the two main characters expect at last to see Godot he again fails to appear. Sinn Fein have confidently expected P&J devolution to occur some time soon for a remarkably long time now: yet every time one hurdle is overcome it seems that the DUP manufacture another one. Recently it was all about the financial settlement: now it seems to be back to “community confidence” which currently seems to be removal of the parades commission; though few expect that to be the final stumbling block.
Unionists can disagree with the cleverness of the latest precondition for devolution and it has been suggested that the tactic could back fire. However, one cannot doubt that tactically the DUP have won victory after victory on this issue. Time and again the DUP have insisted on one precondition being met after another and time and again despite them achieving the demanded success they have created another hurdle. It is of course a carbon copy of the tactics used by Sinn Fein against the UUP over decommissioning. It has been repeatedly suggested (most recently by Malachi O’Doherty) that Sinn Fein could in retaliation resign Martin McGuinness and, hence, force a Stormont election which might well result in them holding the First Minister’s position. However, that leads us on to the issue of Donald Rumsfeld.

Donald Rumsfeld uncle of our now sadly left commentor Darth Rumsfeld (okay not really) was not the most successful Defense Secretary in the United States’ history and is famous for many things including one of the odder quotes in recent political history:

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

In reality that quote of Rumsfeld’s is not as stupid as it sounds: it suggests that in a complex situation things can happen which one knows one cannot predict; in addition, however, there are also other things which you could not even have conceived of and indeed thoughout could never happen. Malachi’s article (well worth study as his stuff always is) suggests that the list of things to be weighed up is extensive. In addition both the DUP and Sinn Fein are hampered by not knowing exactly what their own community will do let alone what the other side will do.

There have been a trickle of defections from Sinn Fein since the St Andrews’ Agreement and there have been suggestions of grass roots discontent at both the direction Stormont has taken and also Sinn Fein’s tactics within the assembly. Despite this their vote seemed very stable at the European election and of course they easily topped the poll. However, they had a recognisable candidate; a major incentive to maximise their vote (trying to top the poll) and of course there was no anti agreement republican candidate. In addition since the European election they have continued to fail to get P&J devolved and so could lose more votes due to their perceived continuing failure against the DUP. All these are “known unknowns” for Sinn Fein and must be informing their discussions. For a party which has always prided itself on knowing what its supporters want and will accept, they must be in a relatively good position to try to establish from their activists what the mood of the republican grass roots is.

In addition they have the “known unknown” of how the DUP would react to coming second to Sinn Fein: that may well also be informing their calculations as it is highly likely that the DUP would refuse to accept playing second fiddle in the assembly and the whole thing could collapse. That would lead to a series of completely unpredictable events: would a British Government with so many other things to worry about want to get involved in further complex negotiations this close to a general election? Following an election would Cameron be the next PM, would he have a majority and what would his position be? All these issues become so complex that they could easily be characterised as “unknown unknowns;” indeed the whole thing rapidly assumes the visage of a form of chaos theory.

The DUP have their own known and unknown unknowns. The problem is that they are arguably in an even worse position. They completely failed to see the European election result coming and still seem to be trying to work out a narrative to explain let alone respond to the disaster which befell them in May. They know that they cannot predict how the nationalist electorate would respond to an election. However, in addition they do not know how the unionist electorate would respond. Until the last European election they did not even know that they did not know this – a classic “unknown unknown.” After the European election they seemed to be trying to work out what went wrong but it is still unclear whether or not the have truly appreciated the problem let alone worked out any solutions.

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein can of course see that there are a great many “unknowns” out there. At the moment, however, both have positions of some influence and power. As such to collapse the agreement could end up with either or both of them looking like turkeys who voted for Christmas. The situation is so “unknowable” that it would take an extremely brave politician to destroy the edifice which they inhibit. Hence, for the meantime the Flying Dutchman sails mournfully onwards though there may be someone with saw cutting a hole in the bottom that is yet another unknown.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit


    As you indicate, and leaving other consideration aside, the DUPs electoral position is potentially worse than SFs and the given that SF consistenlty warned that if the DUP deliberately stall (since November last year they have been moving, albeit slowly) on the Transfer then they would collapse Stormo – then tactically and in order to maintain crediibility on the issue they probably will do so – if the issue of parading cannot be resolved to their satisfaction.

    With so much spin flying round about the DUP forcing concessions, I have yet to see a convinicing Unionist arguement (a thread perhaps?) which explains why Unionists are so upbeat about the abolition of the Parades commission when it may give more power to SF on the issue. Any thoughts?

    Also any ideas if the great Sammy B. expressed any views on the vexed question of Ulster?

  • fin

    Sammy, its not often we disagree, however, I think SF would be reluctant to collapse Stormont. Getting the DUP into the big house was a major victory, and to be honest I think they came cheaply, the longer Stormont is in operation the harder it is to back out of it. I think right now Robbo would love to be back on the outside so its important to not grant his wish. P&J is going to happen thats the victory for nationalism, stalling is a short lived victory for unionism.

    As I said I think the DUP came onside cheaply and regarding parades I get the feeling they don’t know what to ask for, remember the wishlist cannot benefit nationalists or else the Jimhadists will go for them, looks like the Libya holiday is also a noon-starter, so, sofar its a £2000 payoff for ex-Trevors, looks like they might once again prove to be a cheap date.

  • dub

    Whether the provos are in the position of Trimble being sliced by the provos as they dragged out decommissioning or whether the provos are in the same position again and slicing the DUP by forcing them into a position they do not want to be in, and making them thereby make a fool of themselves in front of the three governments as they try to wriggle out of their commitments is a moot question. I incline toward the latter view myself. The DUP are being destroyed in the same way as the UUP. Unionism as a whole is being sliced into more and more pieces as the British/Provo alliance steam rollers on. If Fianna Fail come in the alliance will be even more potent, as there will be a link to governmental power in Dublin. Grim days ahead for unionism.

  • fin

    Dub interesting take. Sinn Fein are blamed for distroying the SDLP, the UUP, and now the DUP, no wonder so many want Gerry to step down, how long before they’re gunning for Fianna Fail and the Conservatives ; )

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit


    the DUP may be in a tight corner but all the spin in the world will not rescue them if the abolition of the Parades Commission does not strengthen the hand of the OO, or if it as it seems from the outside possibly weakens it.

    But, we will have to see how this plays out – Robbo is a crafty operator and although in a tight corner I think it would be a mistake to underestimate him – but, as mentioned above still no detail that suggests why he is so keen to potentially jump out of the wee-Ulster-frying-pan into the the big-Lundy-bonfire.

    SF should wait paitently and then pull the plug if no movement, pocket the First Minister’s post and then send a note to Oweny Patterson to say if he can knock get the UUP into shape they might have the basis for setting Stormo up again.


    moot and very interesting question and keeps us all coming back to old Sluggery for more – but I tend to see it same as yourself.

  • fin

    Sammy, some quality prose there fella.

    Same as you I can’t see whats in the transfer of Parades to Stormont, BUT, remember, when these guys were asked at ST Andrews if there was *ahem* anything else they might like all they could produce was planning applications for approval, HMG must have pissed themselves. I really don’t think they know what to ask for.

    As for Robbo being a smart operator, saying no all the time wears a bit thin with everyone after a while, and when you’re in the big house its a lot more difficult than when you’re organising a few thousand knuckle draggers to shut the 6 counties down.

    £2000 a head for ex-Trevors is in the bag, a Libyian call centre, and an unknown report on parades are all he’s hoping for at the moment.

    Not to worry his old boss and his missus got bought, Robbo and his missus are fond of a few quid and I expect shortly after his Lundyfying he’ll be off to the Lords.

  • cut_the_bull

    Peter has raised the hairs on the neck of the OO,the next for him to make is to demand marches down the Garvaghy and Ormeau Rds regardless of Paddy Ashdown pigeon holing these parades as legacy parades.
    The legacy is that where unwanted and unwelcome parades are forced through communities,there will be trouble.
    I dont think the Assembly will survive if residents are ever batoned and beaten off any road again to facilitate Orange marches.
    It may be time for the Brit govt to remind unionists 1690 was along time ago and the days of marching where,when and how you want are over.
    Peter should remeber what happened to Trimble the Drumcree parade helped end his career here.
    Michael Copeland the Ulster Unionist parades spokesman was hissed and booed by fellow Orangemen on the Newtownards Rd when the PSNI read warnings out that those attending a parade where possibly in breach of a parades commission determination.
    Michael lost his Assembly seat shortly after that parade.
    Jim Allister must be laughing waiting on peters failure to deliver on the OO’s next demand.

  • Bigger Picture

    So Turgon why if this is a sucessful strategy in getting Unionist demands will the TUV continue to attack the DUP for doing it?

  • ulsterfan

    The devolution of P&J will come but on terms that are acceptable to the DUP.
    These have been achieved but whats the point of rushing into this when for another six months or so Robinson can annoy the Shinners(yes politicians do deliberately make things difficult for the opposition even if it is only to see them struggle)
    The Unionist community are not worried about devolution even if this means a shinner getting the post in five or six years time and in due course Martin as FM will not be the end of the world. And why should this be.
    Sf has signed up to GFA which means different things to many people but one fact stands out.
    SF accept the status quo and can only get any significant change by agreement with DUP.
    If nothing changes and how can change come about without our agreement what is there to fear. Nothing!!!!
    Unionists can sit back, do nothing but frustrate Republican agenda and to see Sf become tired and weary with few friends in Ireland or elsewhere
    Unionists have plenty of experience in saying no and shall do so on every occasion to protect their own interests.
    SF can do nothing without our consent and are accountable to Stormont.
    After all it was SF policy not not go to Stormont in the first place and now they are subject to a veto controlled by Unionists. Who would have believed that???
    Finally TUV are not a threat and Republicans read too much into one Council by election.

  • alan56


    PRS a fine institution ! Beckett was good but a bit inaccessible. Now Wilde wrote some funny stuff which migh be relevent!… after all he wrote brilliantly about dysfunctional relationships like Robbo and Martin!

  • Turgon

    true but I am really more a Beckett fan. I am into unintelligible fiction. I have managed Ulysses: I am sure I am a better person for it though I still have no real idea what it was about. I confess I gave up on Finnegan’s Wake: I might try again this winter.

  • alan56

    And to think that some people regard the TUV and its supporters as ‘backwoodsmen’. Beckett, Joyce..etc.!

  • Bigger Picture

    But why will you still, at the end of the day, denounce it all as a sell out Turgon?

  • Turgon

    I think Robinson is playing the hand he has extremely well: his tactics are excellent. However, the problem is the strategy. I think he should not be where he is. Leave aside the current parades commission issue which may not be anything like as good a deal as it sounds. My thesis has always been that the strategy is very poor and no end of tactical cleverness and beating Sinn Fein can take away from the fact that he is in a poor strategic position.

    I have been saying this for ages. One recent-ish blog which sums it up is Elections and Battles: tactics and strategy

  • Bigger Picture

    So when more and more is gleaned you will be back on here attacking that then?

    SO how do you go about trying to get the electorate to vote for you, if/when positive advancements of unionism are already being made?

  • Bigger Picture

    Sorry, let me re word that question:

    I agree that the DUP has won the tactical battle within stormont. That much is granted. However P+J has put that battle outside the ambit of Stormont and positioned it much more in a sort of mini St Andrews setting. Is this now a case of going back to strategy? IN which case you seem to agree with it, no?

    The objectives of the DUP have gone beyond merely stopping the Maze project or the ILA and moved on to major constitutional issues:

    1. P+J and the need for community confidence and a suitable financial deal
    2. Institutional reform at Stormont as set out in Robinson’s speech at the Ulster Hall
    3. Confidence building measures eg the removal of the parades commission.

    These are issues and measures that go beyond the ambit of mere ‘tactics’ as you have put them. Clearly the DUP are thinking about the strategy and you agree with that?

    ok, more a deconstruction than a rewording but a valid question to ask nonetheless.

  • OC

    Personally, I’m Waiting for Good Dope.