The only thing that is certain is that everything is uncertain. Six months ago Arlene Foster and the DUP were on the ropes and friendless. Sinn Fein moved in for the killer blow, and only just missed eclipsing them in the March election.
Round two began shortly afterwards, in which the DUP bagged almost all the prizes left that hadn’t been taken, including a set of ongoing negotiations for a package of measures for Northern Ireland.
As David put it on BBC Radio Wales last week the DUP seem to have promised to provide confidence for the Queen’s Speech [imagine dragging the poor old Queen away to Parliament in the middle of Ascot Week – Ed], whilst specific negotiations continue around what supply means.
Speculations have been rife about what Sinn Fein plans to do, now that their long promised agitprop drama at Leinster House has passed off without incident or indeed any of the serious press coverage they expected for their successful abstentionist campaign.
Now only one of SF’s public representatives in Northern Ireland above the grade of councillor is actually working, leaving the DUP completely unpoliced over any settlement it brings back from Westminster and its lobbying the British government over Brexit.
Sinn Fein like many of the DUP’s critics – including, according to Stephen Bush, the current Tory party – have underestimated the bounce-back-ability of what remains of the old Paisleyite party, which claimed some 36% of the popular vote earlier this month:
…there’s a reason why the DUP had such a good night on 8 June and it’s because they’re effective political operators with a good grasp of what their electorate wants. Unlike the Conservative government, they know how to negotiate.
The important thing to remember is that the Conservatives have just one card to play against the DUP: that is, the aversion of their voters to an arrangement which allows Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street.
But once the Queen’s Speech is passed, that card ceases to be in play until the next Queen’s Speech or a formal vote of no confidence. Thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, what constitutes a confidence vote has been narrowly defined.
The government can lose any number of votes – over the legislative timetable, over Brexit, over its core programme as set out in the Queen’s Speech – and it won’t fall.
That means that once the government is “home and dry” thanks to the passage of the Queen’s Speech, the Conservatives’ leverage over the DUP will be greatly diminished while, day-to-day and week-to-week, the DUP will have the whip hand.
They will be able to hold the government up by voting with it on the Queen’s Speech and the Budget – but they will be free to let them down any time on anything else.
How defensible a DUP MP thinks even a passive approval of a consistent breach of litter laws by a paramilitary organisation, or what it says to their putative partners in the UK parliament, I’m not entirely sure.
It’s not a widely acceptable British tradition elsewhere in the UK, to so casually ignore the principle of equality before the law. But the widespread demonisation of the DUP says something about the blind spots of their critics too.
Not least about exactly who’s responsible for the latest crushing of democracy in Northern Ireland. This time it wasn’t the British. As Eoghan Harris noted on Sunday too many folks in Dublin are buying into what they hope is true rather than what’s more likely to be true:
Last Wednesday, writing in The Irish Times, Ray Bassett, a former Irish ambassador and joint secretary of the British-Irish Secretariat in Belfast, gave us a glimpse of the mellow mindset of the DFA in dealing with Sinn Fein.
Bassett began by totally misreading the current situation in Northern Ireland. “The DUP will be the more anxious of the two big parties to get into government.”
Actually the reverse is true. Sinn Fein has nowhere else to go and cannot stand by while Arlene Foster doles out the May dosh under Direct Rule. [Emphasis added]
Sure, the DUP do look misshapen by the standards of mainland UK politics (and, by their tolerance of paramilitary self-indulgences, they are). But they’re also the beneficiaries of a very Irish reflex, which is that the more we are despised the more our voters love us.
During this phase of the general uncertainty, for once the only NI party being talked about in England is the DUP and not Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein’s decision to make itself absent from any position in which it could be retrospectively be held responsible for what comes next.
It could backfire on the DUP, of course. Clearly, the SF strategy is to let the DUP shoulder all the risk and then hope that it goes wrong. Besides being an odd use of a strong mandate, it’s reduced them to observers rather than participants in and shapers of NI’s future.
Meanwhile, despite the industrial quantities of weapons grade opprobrium being thrown at the DUP, what they come back with will matter at least to their voters. It may even constitute an offer even SF may not be able to refuse (whom, tellingly, they continue to privately brief):
DUP: 'Govt needs to bring greater £ocus to the talks'.
— Jon Tonge (@JonTonge) June 20, 2017
Mr Adams, who’s brainchild bringing down Stormont was, continues to swing both ways on future re-engagement with Northern Ireland’s democratic institutions. As Patrick Murphy memorably noted last Saturday:
…while Stormont was “bad” during the long war, “good” for the past ten years and then “bad” again since Christmas, it might be “good” again soon. (You may remember that the EU used to be “bad”, but the same EU is now “good”.)
SF’s fascinating and flexible use of language allows it to heavily influence the thought process of constitutional nationalists, as evidenced by the recent election results.
It is tempting to examine it alongside George Orwell’s fictional Newspeak, an altered form of regular English designed to determine public opinion by restricting independent thought.
The party’s return to Stormont will be easy. It will just claim victory in overcoming its hitherto ill-defined concepts of corruption and inequality. The nationalist electorate will cheer.
The party’s MLAs will return to eating assembly food, which is subsidised by the taxpayer, while 23 per cent of children here remain in poverty. Another victory for old Ireland.