Hillsborough Agreement: some TUVish thoughts; and blackadder

So the deal has finally been done: unless the UUP can be induced to throw a spanner in the works; or the DUP’s consultation with the community shows that the unionist community really will not accept the agreement; or Robinson’s cunning devices can be shown to be more effective than Baldrick’s cunning plans. A negative outcome of the DUP’s consultation seems vanishingly unlikely: when political parties consult the community they always claim to get the answer they had already decided on: anyone who doubts this should think of the effects of the DUP’s consultation of the community after their European election debacle; nothing whatsoever (incidentally the Presbyterian church are also very fond of such consultations).

Clearly the DUP have been proclaiming the deal as a major success: although surprisingly Peter Robinson is more bullish in his News Letter article than on the DUP’s own website where he admits more to compromises and indeed raises the spectre of needing to move forwards lest we slip back into violence: a favourite tactic of Trimble and Paisley in the past to explain away concessions made to republicans.The DUP can of course legitimately point out that their European election manifesto did support the devolution of policing and justice (not that the DUP have always stuck to their manifesto commitments) though that support depended on:

(1)Satisfactory financial arrangements
(2)Appropriate institutional arrangements
(3)Tangible republican support for policing and the rule of law

The first may have been achieved but the latter two are considerably more shaky. The DUP tried very hard to keep the justice minister semi detached from the executive lest the minister’s decisions come under the scrutiny and control of the rest of the executive. This of course was to ensure that Sinn Fein would not be able to exercise a veto; although this always seemed a difficult position to advance it was once suggested by the DUP but was lost at the Hillsborough negotiations. As such on cross cutting issues there will be a Sinn Fein veto as there will be on issues related to finance.

The issue of republican support for policing and the rule of law is of course a matter of judgement. The DUP appear not to mind about incidents such as Conor Murphy’s criticism of the seizure of Sean Hughes’s assets, particularly odd in view of what Peter Robinson had to say about Mr. Hughes previously.

The reality of course is that although devolution of policing and justice was official DUP policy, they repeatedly refused to name a date and gloried in their ability to avoid doing so, repeatedly humiliating Sinn Fein over this. Lord Morrow famously ruled it out in the life time of the current assembly; Gregory Campbell suggested it might take six months or six years. Hence, the current timetable seems to be an abject defeat for the DUP.

Not only has the DUP had to concede on the timing and the fact that the P&J minister’s role can be affected by the mutual vetoes but other defeats stalk the agreement.

The Review of Outstanding Issues from St. Andrews has the potential to create further problems. This review is to report by the end of February, create a working group by the end of March and agree a programme to complete the conclusions within four weeks. This raises the spectre of the Irish Language Act etc reappearing in the near future. Of course the DUP could stall again on this issue as they did over P&J. However, we have now seen that the DUP are unwilling to hold the line when faced with the threat of an election and as such any claims that they will stop an ILA must be taken not with pinch but a lorry load of salt. In addition to the ILA the other outstanding issues from St Andrews are a review (with a view to expansion not contraction) of the North South bodies, the North South Civic Forum and the North South Parliamentary Forum. All of these may continue to be blocked by the DUP but again there is nothing to stop Sinn Fein from creating further crises over these issues when it feels that this is necessary and such seems to be the DUP’s pathological aversion to elections at the moment that them holding the line on these issues is far from guaranteed.

Turning then to the DUP’s victory: the parading issue. It would be churlish not to accept some progress for them on this issue and certainly there has been some change in the mood music from republicans. However, it is unclear whether the six member working group will be able to come up with much in the way of agreed solutions; in addition the stress on local decision making will not necessarily produce solutions more acceptable to the loyal orders than the hated Parades Commission. Finally of course the timetable envisaged results in the end of the process being the end of this calender year, assuming all is agreed. That is long after the end of this year’s marching season (apart from the closing of the gates in Londonderry) and part 12 of the parading section of the agreement states: “The current adjudication mechanism of the Parades Commission will continue until the new improved arrangements are in place.”

That last paragraph demonstrates the problem with the current Hillsborough agreement. Since St. Andrews the DUP have been able to lead Sinn Fein a merry dance by not implementing things which Sinn Fein claimed that they had signed up to and using the wording of St. Andrews to back them up. In addition the DUP were keeping back from Sinn Fein things that they (Sinn Fein) wanted. This was a reversal from the previous situation whereby Sinn Fein held back things the UUP wanted (decommissioning and the like) whilst extracting concession after concession. For a time the reverse tactic has served the DUP well and it must be admitted that the proposals for the justice minister are significantly less toxic than they would have been had the DUP not held out. However, the tactic became the strategy and withholding P&J became for the DUP a mark of virility:one which has now been castrated in the most public fashion.

In addition the DUP failed to extract really major concessions from the P&J negotiations, concessions which would have made the Hillsborough agreement seem another significant victory for unionism such as an enforced timetable for voluntary coalition. Had the DUP achieved something like that the TUV’s jibes would have seemed extremely hollow. Instead being left with a review of a review of the Parades Commission seems little enough considering the political capital invested in stalling P&J. Finally for the DUP, such was their investment in what they now insist was a tactic that their supporters came to celebrate the non devolution of P&J as a sign of the DUP’s ongoing defeat of Sinn Fein. Indeed so convincing was that defeat that as mentioned above many DUP politicians such as Gregory Campbell and Maurice Morrow are now left with significant egg on their faces from the DUP’s supposed victory at Hillsborough.

Clearly the never ending saga of the rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic up on the hill will continue. However, Sinn Fein have demonstrated that by producing a near collapse they can get much of what they want. Sinn Fein seem to have less to fear from the electorate than the DUP and unless Margaret Ritchie can pull off an unbelievable transformation of the SDLP or the UUP are willing to help the DUP and the TUV vanish, that situation is likely to stay. Hence, the DUP have been shown to be in a weaker position and it is unlikely that Sinn Fein will not exploit the situation to keep moving along their staging posts. All the DUP have to look forward to is the likely loss of some seats at Westminster and the highly possible loss of their position as the largest party at the next Stormont election. Such is the legacy of Ian Paisley’s initial compromises at St Andrews and Peter Robinson’s obsession with short term tactics over long term strategy. All the DUP can do is stay in the bunker hoping that something will turn up: unless of course Peter Robinson’s cunning plan really is cunning as a fox what used to be Professor of Cunning at Oxford University but has moved on, and is now working for the UN at the High Commission of International Cunning Planning.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.

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