Proposed Westminster pact could have big implications for Stormont

Eamonn’s scoop about “secret talks” could eventually open up a whole new vista for unionism, if they came off. But one side’s new vista is the other’s deep gloom. If a pan- unionist pact with the Conservatives develops, fears of unionist triumphalism will consolidate nationalism around Sinn Fein and threaten the likely new SDLP leader’s seat in South Belfast.

However if they don’t make a hash of it, I contend that unionist consolidation could significantly enhance the chances of stable government at Stormont. If it happened it would be the first time in a hundred years that unionists of all stripes came together, rather than falling out, and apart.The impulse towards unity under power sharing was last explored jointly by both parties – and quickly quashed – by two young politicians in 1987, Frank Millar of the UUs — and one Peter Robinson of the DUP. Both of them got their fingers burnt for trying. It was nearly 20 years before Robinson revived the idea of his own free will. Upon the anvil of today’s extraordinary crisis, there are signs that 41 years after the first big intra- Unionist split in the O’Neill election of 1969, unionists of all shades and at a tortoise’s pace, are learning the hard lesson, that endless splitting to the right has delivered them pathetically little, right up to the point Trimble took the Damascus road. And that nearly destroyed the party. The shortlived weak United Ulster Unionist Council which was formed to destroy the first power sharing executive of 1974 also wrecked Conservative prospects of returning to power. Yet the UUUC and the succeeding Molyneaux minimalism achieved little for mainstream unionism, already riven over their response to direct rule. All it did was to expose uniomist impotence and give coalition member the DUP a big boost on the long road to unionist dominance. Even the eventual gain of 6 extra seats was a chimera. It ended the unionist near-monopoly at Westminster. Out of all that, the DUP learned the wrong lessons, until their assumption of the leading unionist role forced a radical rethink. Now they know what’s sticking to them, as they say on the Newtownards Road.

How times have changed. New lessons are being learned all the time. In 1998, it was hoped that the parties of the centre would impel the parties of the extreme towards compliance, and reap the electorate rewards. Next, it was the parties of the extremes which held the key. Sinn Fein and the DUP could not be outflanked on the right, could they? Wrong again. So why not try consolidation?

But this is to jump several hurdles at once. An electoral pact and a post-election deal to support a putative Cameron minority government is difficult enough, with so much bad blood and added complications for candidate selection. It is something else entirely for Stormont.

What Cameron stands to gain is obvious. What’s in it for unionism? Very little remains in the direct gift of the UK government. Under the GFA, nationalism will veto radical reform like the DUP’s dream of voluntary coalition. An amendment of the St Andrews Act to allow group designations instead of parties to nominate the First Minister seems more feasible. But even this would require nationalist and Irish government political approval. No, on fundamental reform, the local parties are on their own, aside from warm words. Might the prospect of stable government impel them towards a single unionist party? Or would the new political baby present a bigger tempting target to TUV, the new DUP? History suggests not the latter; in spite of Paisley’s charisma, it took the DUP decades to build up the numbers. And time is not on Jim Allister’s side. The bigger threat was – maybe still is – a DUP split or rapid retreat to the default right. For now, at least they’ve learned the lesson from the anarchic old Ulster Unionist party. Keep discipline under pressure The greatest favour the Tories can do is to keep urging them to agree to the devolution of policing and justice. Huge responsibilites rest with Cameron and his untried cohorts not to disturb the foundations of power sharing and the British-Irish partnership. It would a Tory blunder of the first magnitude if they were to introduce a new instability into the system just when many are working so hard to get rid of the old one.

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