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.