After the defeat of the German army at Stalingrad it briefly looked as if a complete German collapse was imminent. However, General Erich von Manstein launched a quite brilliant counter attack known as the Third Battle of Kharkov. From a position of apparent critical weakness the Germans salvaged a good military position.
Mick has covered the fact that Sinn Fein have ended the talks about P&J below. This is hardly the outcome the media or many others thought likely a few weeks ago. In the immediate aftermath of Irisgate and the DUPs apparent weakness many thought that an agreement was likely and one which would not be on the terms particularly favourable to the DUP. It seemed that Irisgate had given SF the whip hand over the DUP and that they could dangle the threat of a Stormont election over the DUP like a Sword of Damocles. The suggestion was that the DUP would be heavily damaged in any ensuing assembly election and that that was not a risk which the DUP were willing to take. This was a logical assumption and it seemed as late as week that an agreement was imminent considering the positive noises coming from the DUP. Indeed there was the suggestion that persuading the remaining sceptics within the DUP was the only obstacle left before an agreement.
It is unclear exactly what has prompted the sudden change in fortunes. The talks last Sunday between the UUP, DUP and Conservatives may well have been a large part of the equation. There have been quiet mutterings for some time that in the event of a Stormont election yielding SF as the largest party, the UUP and DUP needed a contingency plan. That had always seemed unlikely in the presence of the Conservative / UUP pact.
It is of course highly unclear what exactly was discussed at the Hatfield House talks though Mick quotes Ken Reid as suggesting that it may have included unionist unity. Whether or not it actually did include that, the unionist parties are making little pretence otherwise which has disquieted Sinn Fein. Their Sword of Damocles to wave at the DUP may become about as effective as the one waved at Harrison Ford in the famous Raiders of the Lost Ark scene. At this juncture it is not what was actually discussed between the parties at Hatfield House which matters but what Sinn Fein fears was discussed. All of a sudden the Sinn Fein calculation that the DUP would do a deal to avoid an early election and regroup before Westminster looks utterly flawed.
There are also additional reasons for the DUP to avoid an early election. Had they made an agreement in the current climate they would have handed the TUV an even larger stick to beat them into Lundism with. In addition they would have offered the UUP a perfect opportunity to cross their T on a major issue and to quote Jim Molyneaux outright them. Furthermore there is the strong suspicion that some of the more sceptical DUP politician, especially the MPs such as Gregory Campbell (whom Robinson cannot resign form Westminster) would have jumped ship. In the current climate the DUP need Campbell and indeed Dodds much more than they need the DUP.
Hence the DUP had good reasons both positive and negative to strengthen their line against Sinn Fein. What Sinn Fein will do now is unclear. If they collapse the agreement they can test the mettle of any supposed DUP / UUP pact though that will require an election to occur and there is no guarantee of this. If on the other hand they do not collapse Stormont then yet again they will have had their bluff called and will have marched up the hill only to march back down again.
Again Sinn Fein may have overreached themselves: once again they have reached out to grasp victory in a crisis which they have manufactured and once again that victory has turned to ashes in their mouths. Had they proposed an extremely reasonable compromise to the DUP two or more weeks ago they might well have managed to bounce the DUP into it. Had such a compromise been anything less than an agreement to end mandatory coalition in exchange for P&J devolution it would have been seen as a victory for SF and a defeat for the DUP. Ironically of course such a political defeat might well have been at least as damaging in the longer run to both the DUP and overall unionist confidence than the collapse of the assembly or possibly even than an SF First Minister. Sinn Fein have difficulties understanding the unionist mindset and on this occasion seemed to have misread both the severity of the DUP’s weakness and the circumstances which would most allow them to exploit it. That is of course understandable as no doubt many DUP politicians and apparatchiks (the unionists SF must be most used to dealing with) will have been terrified of the imminent loss of jobs and money which the end of the assembly would have entailed. The DUP’s leaders, however, whilst they at times be better at tactics than strategy, seem to have foreseen that a bad agreement which saved their vulnerable MLAs and hangers on in the short term, would damage the whole DUP project much more in the longer term. As such they have once again (on this occasion possibly with UUP and Conservative help) outmanoeuvred Sinn Fein. Whether this is the beginnings of realignment within unionism remains to be seen.
At the start of this piece I pointed to Erich von Manstein and the Third Battle of Kharkov. That was a major setback for the Red Army. However, this battle is not necessarily over yet and even if it is within just over two years the T-34s were rumbling down the Wilhelmstrasse. Republicans are used to playing a long game and unionists need to remember that.