Rogue ministers: Preparing for an election?

Not quite the morning after the night before, the Assembly sits tomorrow for the first time since Peter Robinson’s tactical, though perhaps not strategic, masterclass. The resignation of four DUP ministers on Thursday leaves many unanswered questions, literally, the most pressing of which in the short term is whether the current Assembly has a future as it descends into farce.

This morning the UUP announced they will attend the talks this week and appeared to also contradict, again, their stance of last week. Last Tuesday Mike Nesbitt had said the existence of the PIRA “is the issue and the only issue that we will speak on”.

“We will consider going into the session which deals with the IRA. We will consider it, but we need to see the papers and the terms of engagement.” Mike Nesbitt 8th September

Mr Nesbitt’s interview with Mark Carruthers on Thursday night was described as a ‘car crash’ by Professor Rick Wilford. The UUP leader said that the issue of the PIRA would be top of the party’s own agenda at the talks, even if it was not actually on top of anyone else’s.

The UUP statement released today goes further and states that the party, beyond merely attending sessions other than those dealing with the PIRA last week, actively participated in discussions on welfare, something the party said it would not do.

“We have imaginative ideas, including the pathway to unblocking welfare, which we proposed at the talks last week.” UUP statement 13th September

Despite the shifting sands, perhaps caused by the DUP’s unexpected Friday afternoon curveball, the Ulster Unionists will feel they have the DUP on the backfoot. The UUP may hope for an early election to capitalise on the pressure that is currently weighing on Peter Robinson, whilst the DUP are clearly committed to talks over suspension.

However, do not be fooled into thinking that the DUP do not have an eye on a future poll. Explicit in both Peter Robinson’s statement on Thursday and in Arlene Foster’s comments on The View was a clear nod to the DUP’s next election campaign.

“If anybody knows me and indeed knows the Democratic Unionist Party they know that I’m not going to put at risk to the people of Northern Ireland the possibility that rogue Sinn Féin or renegade SDLP ministers are going to take decisions that will harm the community in Northern Ireland.” Arlene Foster 10th September

Former SDLP deputy leader Brid Rodgers claimed the stand-in First Minister’s “mask had slipped” but in fact Foster’s remarks mirrored those the pre-written statement read by the party leader.

“I have asked Arlene to remain in post as Finance Minister and acting First Minister to ensure that nationalists and republicans are not able to take financial and other decisions that may be detrimental to Northern Ireland.” Peter Robinson 10th September

A major rallying point for the DUP in any coming election will be the ‘threat’ of Sinn Fein overtaking the DUP and Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister. Currently the DUP have nine more MLAs than Sinn Fein but it is likely that Sinn Fein will pick off additional seats. At a time when the UUP will feel they have Mr Robinson on the foot back, it is an effective, albeit cynical, attempt to reach out to hardliners and lay the foundation for a defensive electoral campaign.

Also speaking on The View, Gerry Kelly freely admitted that he trusts neither of the unionist parties. Hardly a surprise but it caused considerably less outrage than Foster’s remarks, which many, including Mr Kelly, were quick to condemn as bigoted. Indeed as things stand, and if the roles were reversed, nationalists and republicans would never allow unionists to govern alone.

The failure of the current Assembly to build trust through power-sharing is clear. Until both the inadequate political structures and the chronic lack of trust between unionists and Sinn Fein are addressed, progress outside of behind closed doors talks will stutter. As public disenchantment with the Assembly continues to rise, one wonders when it will first become evident at the ballot box.