Clear and not so clear messages at the weekend

As the UK national media had ignored the latest Stormont kerfuffle, they were hardly likely to sit up and pay attention to the weekend convolutions from La Mon House. Ears did prick up though when dissident republicans spoke in language they could easily understand. The obvious conclusions, fair and unfair, will be drawn: the more nationalists think the DUP are screwing Sinn Fein, the more the dissidents gain in credibility. While Peter Robinson didn’t address this directly, he showed he knew that his main problem doesn’t lie with mainstream republicans.As he set devolution in continuing context, his metaphor was clear enough .“I firmly believe that our largest problems are in our rear-view mirror”. That, just to spell it out, means the abiding problem of unionist fragmentation, the TUV and on the side, the UU-Conservative alliance that is an obstacle to a unionist electoral pact. From Peter’s point of view, these are good political points and amount to a plea for wider understanding, despite the biting tone of his efforts to please the conference crowd. Yet with some subtlety, the big problem with republicans was set in the past.

“There were always going to be problems for people sharing power after years of conflict and enmity. But we were never going to be remotely credible in that undertaking while private armies were allowed to hold themselves above and beyond the law while thinking to administer their own brand of so-called community policing and restorative justice.”
“ Walking away from Stormont and powersharing would be counter to unionist interests.”

But Peter can hardly leave it at that. He has opted to take the battle to TUV knowing full well from his own record that it’s impossible to appease them. So what next? In three thoughtful pieces, even the Irish Times team weren’t sure. What has to happen before the powers are transferred? How does no speaky to Martin McGuinness make the parades issue or any other easier to solve? Gerry Kelly’s condemnation of the weekend attacks and his calls to the public to give information to the police puts the moral pressure against the DUP.

At this stage, Nigel Dodds’ talk of more efficient government and a voluntary coalition is understandably suspected as a stalling device. He might care to explain why “mandatory” coalition is the problem. It worked brilliantly to give a focus to Sinn Fein’s political strategy and to draw the DUP half into the tent rather than remaining outside, pissing in. This is precisely the wrong time to bid to change it. As an ill concealed attempt to demote Sinn Fein or take revenge on them for past gains, to avoid the Trimble trap, or just a recoil from dealing with them at all – whatever it is, it shows poor judgement of the DUP’S wider interests.

Either under the umbrella of the two (otherwise preoccupied and no doubt exasperated) Prime Ministers, or better still, meeting alone, Robinson and McGuinness need to meet urgently to begin thrashing this out. The Christmas deadline is hardly realisitic, but then we’re hardly unused to slippage.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London