“No surrender” from Arlene, as she calls for a united unionist party on the eve of negotiations

Arlene’s call for a single unionist party in the Belfast Telegraph is a clear sign she’s going make fight of it.    Coming on the eve of first stage negotiations, it suggests a different  focus – defiance.  The move is out of kilter with the one action that would false foot Sinn Fein or get them back in government – standing aside as first minister even temporarily.

Ideally, I would like to see a renewed attempt to create unionist unity where the parties would come together.

Failing that, we need to agree transfer pacts where unionists transfer down the ballot paper to each other

The impression  given is one of rising to the challenge of the Sinn Fein surge and  shifting towards playing  a longer term numbers game rather than prioritising a return to government quickly.   Arlene is going first for consolidation, the narrow defence of the unionist cause rather than trying to extend its appeal. While this is only a first move, her idea of consolidation repudiates Mike Nesbitt’s  cross community gesture  and reinforces the sectarian character of politics. The implications for Sinn Fein and the SDLP are obvious.

There is no hint here of broadening the appeal. While there is some logic to it,  consolidation would not necessarily amortise unionist strength.  and she betrays no sign of acknowledging that  united unionism can no longer guarantee the numbers.  Although a pact or a united party might make sense in the likes of FST, narrower appeal may mean a smaller overall vote, as the election showed some unionist drift to Alliance and the Greens.

The familiar distrust of all Sinn Fein’s works is still here for all to see.

Given how Sinn Fein reacted to almost winning the election with their renewed calls for a border poll and for concessions from the Government, can you imagine how they would have reacted to having won the election?

There is no admission here that she bore a lot of responsibility for that near- victory nor any acknowledgement  of the obvious  fact  that a “ radical republican agenda” cannot be forced through a power sharing  government.

She doesn’t seem to realise that Sinn Fein’s hand is immeasurably stronger now outside the Executive, full of bargaining chips for returning, thanks largely to her. She seems obsessed by that border poll. Sinn Fein’s undoubted victory shouldn’t be exaggerated.  While a decision to hold a border poll is nominally a matter for the secretary of state on  a judgement on the numbers in favour, the Assembly would surely figure. 40% of the total vote is not near enough to trigger it. And in any hypothetical vote in the Assembly outside the designation straightjackets, nationalism musters 40 votes, the pro-union side up to 50. The “others” are not guaranteed to deliver, true, but probably would. What we have is a more perfect deadlock. Nothing is changed utterly.

OK , so this is too narrow a view. Like workers on strike after a successful ballot, Sinn Fein must up the ante. Like employers who misjudged the strike threat, the DUP have to make an offer.  Go for bust or take your pick?  Irish Language Act, LGBT, a Bill of Rights, joint first ministers, fund the inquests, no hierarchy of victims, the peace centre at last.  Oh and something about Arlene Foster. The list is not exhaustive  You’ll have noticed most of this is about symbols in the sectarian power struggle. Nobody gives a stuff about the business of government, aside from giving the begging bowl a good rattle.

What do the DUP want in return? What can Sinn Fein offer? Who are the DUP to ask for anything and SF to concede? The broad answer must be a return to the Assembly.   What’s it worth to each side? Sinn Fein haven’t anything else to offer that the DUP want. Special EU status for the north whatever that is, is a matter for the two governments and the EU, depending on access to the single market.  DUP support for it would be nice but irrelevant. Concerns about the border are of course real but are probably felt more by nationalists than unionists.The longer the stand-off continues over the Assembly, the more the  complexities of  Brexit will be reduced to just one more battle front in the sectarian  power struggle.

Most of what Sinn Fein want dare I say it, is innately reasonable give or take a detail. None of it undermines the Union one jot. The main problem is that it’s Sinn Fein doing the wanting. Nothing divides them except division itself.  The DUP  should engage and quickly say: ” why don’t we continue this  properly in the Executive?”  This would require new protocols for good behaviour, much stronger than Fresh Start. 

Sinn Fein have their part to play in  Gerry Adams’ ” step change. A system that is vulnerable to a  single  resignation is clearly defective. The protocols must include an early warning of trouble ahead and formal intervention by the two governments which have busked it badly for years.

If Sinn Fein try to insist on a border poll, we’ll know they’re not serious about going back into government soon. Referendums are by nature divisive and the bluntest of instruments for change, as we know from the bitter experience of the EU referendum. The present flurry of frantic calculations has inflamed the  the numbers game that until last week was partly suppressed by both sides for the same reason, that they might lose it, once  the question is actually put.  To the extent that there has been a discussion at all it has mainly been about the optimal conditions for winning it rather  considering what is in the best  interests of society as a whole. Does the latter sound like Gerry Adams, or Arlene Foster for that matter?

On dealings with the Brits, Adams has a fair point about Brokenshire. He was trebly foolish to join the Tory complainers about prosecuting soldiers. It undoubtedly undermined the perception of his impartiality as co-chair of the negotiations; the timing was lousy as the Assembly crisis was brewing, and he has no legal power to intervene. He should mitigate the problem by pressing for the adoption the Haass agenda on the legacy and keeping in reserve legislating for it in full at Westminster.

Arlene could still bring all to a head by opening with the killer question: “if I don’t go forward as first minister will you go back into government?”   If Sinn Fein answered yes, could she sell it as success or survive the charge of why she didn’t stand down in the first place and avoid the permanent damage to the unionist position? If Sinn Fein reply “ too little too late”, then nothing else is around to promote a return to government before the RHI inquiry reports.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London