Here’s a revealing exchange between LBC’s liberal shock jock James O’Brien and ex-Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers:
James O’Brien (JOB): How can Westminister observe rigorous impartiality to the political traditions in Northern Ireland when it is writing a seven-figure cheque for one side.
Theresa Villiers (TV): The package of financial support is for Northern Ireland as a whole actually. It is very similar to kind of financial packages which have supported agreements to take powersharing forward in the past.
JOB: But the DUP can go to the people in NI next time they go to the ballot and present themselves as having secured this funding for Northern Ireland in way Sinn Fein simply will not be able to.
TV: I don’t think that affects the government’s ability to act entirely fairly in relation to the Good Friday Agreement.
JOB: I need a bit of help with this. So, here’s two parties in Northern Ireland sharing power. Westminister is bound by the terms of the Good Friday Agreement is bound to observe rigorous impartiality to both of them. Next time those two parties in NI go to the country, one of them can say we go one and half billion pounds off Theresa May and the other lot didn’t. How can that be a semblance of rigorous impartiality?
TV: I think it absolutely can. It’s frequently been the case that parties in Westminster have worked with NI parites and still managed to maintain a fair and constructive and impartial approach in cross-party negotiations in Northern Ireland.
JOB: Perhaps I’ve not been clear enough, this is the point of my question. It looks very different from everything that’s gone before. You have one side, you have the DUP who can hold up a one and a half billion pound cheque and wave in the face of the NI electorate and say at the same time, “What have Sinn Fein ever got you? Nothing“. How can that square with rigorous impartiality?
No one in NI believes the British government is impartial: certainly not Sinn Fein. A glance at Seamus Mallon’s resignation speech from 1999 shows a perfect willingness by the British to roll over to pressure from one party or another, despite the outline terms of that Agreement.
Then it was Sinn Fein. Now, increasingly in the latter Peace Process era, whether by luck, preparation or opportunity (pace Seneca), the preferential outcomes seem tilted towards the DUP. (Although perhaps the military covenant is a blessing in disguise for old IRA men.)
O’Brien puts his finger on a serious issue. But it is Sinn Fein’s dilemma, not the Brits. On Drivetime today, Declan Kearney was pressed four times by Mary Wilson on whether they would accept Arlene Foster as First Minister. Four times he dodged the question. Hmmm.
But to anyone who thinks it is an insurmountable object, the last word goes to Patrick Murphy, again…
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.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty