The Hillsborough Agreement seems much longer than seven months ago. For months the DUP had stalled in accepting the devolution of policing and justice and Lord Morrow and Gregory Campbell gloated over Sinn Fein suggesting that P&J would not be devolved in the lifetime of the current assembly and that it might take six years. Then despite the rows behind closed doors and the supposed threatened resignations the DUP accepted P&J devolution. At the time in the wake of the problems which seemed to be engulfing the DUP they seemed in a gravely weakened position and conventional wisdom suggested that they greatly feared an assembly election lest it result in the loss of multiple MLAs and the possibility of Sinn Fein taking the First Ministership.
The Hillsborough Agreement produced the timetable for P&J devolution which was Sinn Fein’s main demand and although the DUP may have protested vehemently most saw that devolution as a victory for SF and a defeat for the DUP (and of course a huge victory for David Ford who after claiming he would not take the P&J ministership got his snout well and truly to the truffles of power).
There were other issues agreed which at the time were seen as problematic for the DUP. Amongst those were the Review of Outstanding Issues from St Andrews which was to create a working group and create a programme to complete its conclusions. This raised the spectre of an Irish Language Act. In addition there was to be 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. However, none of these has actually caused any significant problems for unionists. The DUP have managed to stymie republicans on all these issues.
The DUP’s one great victory at Hillsborough was of course the end of the hated Parades Commission. The agreement created a six member group (three DUP, three SF) to create a way forward replacing the Commission. The problem of course is that the main marching organisation the Orange Order then rejected the proposals, albeit by a narrow majority, some months ago. There was a suspicion that the Order might, rather like the Irish electorate over European Agreements, be asked to vote again. Now it seems that the Order is not going to hold a further vote and as such the legislation to replace the Parades Commission has been dropped.
In the aftermath of the Hillsborough Agreement it was suggested that the DUP lost at Hillsborough by 7 – 1: that was clearly was erroneous: rather they seem to have lost 1 – 0. In addition they might still be able to deploy Peter Robinson’s “Clever Device” which he once mentioned as a possible strategy to utilise if the DUP did not get a satisfactory agreement from Hillsobrough. Jim Allister has called on Robinson to deploy the clever device but it is unclear whether Robinson will consider this situation sufficiently serious to need the device and indeed whether it would actually be a “Clever Device” or one of Baldrick’s Cunning Plans.
There does, however, remain a further danger: that Sinn Fein will threaten once again to collapse the executive and force an election; as they did to force the DUP into compromise at Hillsborough. In the aftermath of the Westminster election it looked as if the danger to the DUP of an election was a complete red herring and that if there was an election the DUP would steamroller the UUP and completely destroy the TUV. Now with a new UUP leader there is a slightly higher danger of the UUP doing well and hence, of course produce the danger of a Sinn Fein First Minister. However, this is still a relatively small danger and as such Robinson might at least threaten to use his Clever Device to get a more satisfactory resolution to the parading issue. Alternatively he may calculate that helping the Orange Order at this time is not his first priority and avoiding a crisis this close to the announcement of the Comprehensive Spending Review is a much higher priority. In which case the Parades Commission may survive for the foreseeable future.