Casting bread upon the water

With a Westminster election guaranteed by May, Sinn Féin’s brinkmanship with the DUP on Policing and Justice may be misjudged or deliberately/blindly designed to bring about collapse of the Assembly. It is hard to see how they expect delivery from the DUP without associated painful compromises from themselves. After the European elections and Irisgate the DUP were already facing the prospect of a Westminster election likely to bring real damage and loses – the TUV and UUP are seen as beneficiaries to various levels. The thought of delivery on Policing a Justice to SF ahead of this election would surely have had DUP strategists fearful of compounding potential loses by providing a stick to their own back for opponents. Indeed, the DUP may have calculated that even with concessions from SF on other areas (parades), cutting a deal now may have too much electoral risk. They may be calculating that heading into two elections where they have faced SF down and not compromised could counter any predicted decline in their vote and actually be a preferred option.

SF in particular should be aware of the complexities of managing change on these delicate issues. The wording of their Special Ard Fheis motion in Jan 2007 meant they left endorsement of Policing open to the Ard Comhairle at some non-defined future point. This left them free to contest the March 2007 election with plausible deniability on having endorsed Policing and Justice. However, once they returned in strength to the Assembly in late March of that year it was only a few short weeks before they delivered full support despite no real change or guarantee of devolution of P&J. SF must recognise that a definitive major policy move from the DUP is nearly impossible in advance of an election, just as it was for them – even a fudged outcome wouldn’t seem sensible unless it had major sweeteners attached.

If SF has entered these negotiations with no intention to compromise on areas that will help the DUP sell change in advance of Westminster elections, have they really entered with any expectation of delivery? It seems they may have either miscalculated the DUP’s ability to deliver on terms acceptable to themselves or calculated that an election with its unpredictable outcome is somehow potentially more beneficial.

If they push the button and bring about collapse and an Assembly election it will be a high-risk strategy that merely pushes the same negotiations to the other side of an election where no one can foresee the political landscape to be faced. Maybe in this instance discretion could be the better part of valour at a strategic level and these issues should be left alone until after the Westminster poll if they seriously want the DUP to have a political space to provide ‘product’?

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