Is there really a crisis at Stormont? Or is that just a funny smell drifting in from somewhere?

Brian’s getting jumpy in London and I don’t blame him. Mark Hennessey’s line London report of the meeting between Brian Cowen and Gordon Brown makes me wonder just how thoroughly the mainstream media have done their homework on the one issue that’s apparently holding things up (or at least they have since approximately 2 weeks after last year’s 8th May ‘deadline’). “…the two, who held over two hours of talks in Number 10 Downing Street last night, repeatedly refused to set a deadline for an agreement and, instead, focused on progress made.” There is good reason for that refusal to set a deadline. Put simply: they can’t. In the words of the former Secretary of State, it would be a constitutional nonsense. Add to that (amidst much feverish speculation about an Assembly election) the fact that both SF and the DUP have said neither will call an election, one is forced to ask: Why then is a senior and highly respected (not least in these quarters) journalist writing in the expectation that this was even a possibility? Is it a classic case of the lobby losing touch with reality?

And in writing out the power that the DUP actually has in this situation we are being invited to read their position as being considerably weaker than it actually is…

Of course we can speculate until cows come home about how the DUP might fare in an early Assembly election. It’s a fair guess that even were one to be held in 2011 they would lose some seats to the TUV (and possibly even UCU – NF), particularly where they have three or four seats in the same constituency. Mr Allister is not going away anytime soon. In the meantime, in the wake of the European Elections, Sinn Fein is clearly playing up the DUP’s electoral discomfort for all it’s worth.

Yet possession is 9/10s of the law. The DUP still has what Sinn Fein wants, and arguably (if it is to satisfy promises given by the Ard Comhairle to its 2007 Ard Fheis) what it needs. But if the DUP gives it away too cheaply, it is not quite signing its own death warrant, but is certainly surrendering a large hostage to fortune for no return. And if it holds on too stubbornly (as Robinson pointed out in his own conference speech), it can also lose.

Yet, here’s a mystery. The last time I spoke to anyone in the NIO on the matter (at the BIPA in Swansea) they were confident of getting a deal signed off by February. And now, without the least evidence that there is any kind of a deal on offer, some senior journalists have convinced themselves that some things might happen which cannot actually happen: ie that any downward pressure from London and/or Dublin will have the least effect on the final outcome.

What is that all about?

Despite all the pressure, the DUP retains some useful cards. Labour is weak, and if the Tories’ lead continues to slip further their numbers at Westminster will continue to demand respect if not direct influence. And if Sinn Fein walks, and forces an Assembly election it’s almost a best worst case scenario for Robinson. They won’t get voters back from the TUV, but they may disincentivise them from voting in such large numbers as they did in June.

As for Sinn Fein, if they walk they could take an extra seat in the process. And, if the TUV/UUs do correspondingly well, they could just get their noses in front enough to take the First Minister’s job. That would be a coup indeed. But, not necessarily game over. Besides calculating the behaviour of voters in the ‘other community’ is always a risky business. Miss, and whilst may you have weakened your OFMdFM ‘partner’ (which is a positive by the lights of the ‘Mitchel doctrine’, you are also less likely to get what you want apres le deluge.

One thing I learned in an earlier life is that in story terms, what appears to be the end is never the end.