We’re unlikely to know for a long time exactly why talks on restoring devolved government collapsed in such spectacular fashion last week. It’s always worth asking, in those circumstances, ‘cui bono?’
A long-term collapse in devolved arrangements, and a return to Direct Rule, whether or not it is acknowledged as such, would seem at first blush to benefit the DUP, at least in the short term. It also represents a significant shift in power within the DUP, away from Foster and the Assembly group with its stratum of moderates like Simon Hamilton, and towards the consistently hardline Westminster group, which is currently keeping Theresa May in power.
That in turn gives the DUP Westminster group a free hand to push for a hard Brexit with a relatively hard border, not tied into any Executive or wider Assembly approach which would see the DUP constrained by the need for consensus with Sinn Féin and a broader majority of pro-European opinion in the Assembly.
Beyond even that, with the UUP, Alliance and SDLP out of Westminster, an end to devolution would see state funding for all parties bar the DUP and Sinn Féin dry up, reducing them to poorly funded voluntary structures with minimal staffing. The DUP would therefore kneecap its already weak rival for Unionist votes and also get a sort of ultimate revenge on Alliance for having the temerity to win East Belfast in 2010.
Public support for devolution, especially among Unionists, has eroded badly. Arlene Foster’s statement on Monday implies the DUP is not interested in attempting to restore the Executive. Dependent on her colleagues for its survival, the Conservative government would not appear to have the will to push them towards doing so.
Alex Kane asks in the News Letter whether “the DUP gave serious consideration to an act at any point during lengthy negotiations and, in so doing, conveyed the impression that they ‘were up’ for trying to sell it to their party and wider unionism”.
All the circumstantial evidence would indicate that it was up for it – or at least that its negotiating team was. Officials in the NIO and DFA certainly believed it was worth the two Prime Ministers travelling to Belfast to give their imprimatur on something.
Sinn Féin has already got its version of the collapse into the public domain, not only through its formal statements but as it is almost certainly the source of the leaks to Brian Rowan and Eamonn Mallie. Although they’re hardly strangers to spin, one reason for believing that it is true at least in broad strokes is that it shows the party outnegotiated badly – yet again – by the DUP.
Sinn Féin had conceded no immediate reform of the Petition of Concern system, and therefore no marriage equality; Arlene Foster’s return as First Minister; and that there would be no meaningful agreement on Troubles legacy issues.
An Irish Language Act was probably a necessary win for Sinn Féin on what is, ultimately, a matter of symbolism, given the party’s failure to secure movement on any issue of substance. It’s hard to believe the DUP was ‘unable’ to sell that concession in that context, especially having obtained 73% of the Unionist vote in the General Election and facing no Unionist figure of substance outside the party.
The logical conclusion is that it choose not to sell the deal, or to be more precise that elements in the DUP saw plenty of benefit in feeding its own negotiating team to the wolves. Thinking about who benefits points the finger at the MPs.
While the temptation of securing maximum power through the deal with the Tories is obvious, the problem is it is not allied to any real DUP strategy. It is likely that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the DUP, and by extension for Unionism. The next government could well me Corbyn or McDonnell-led Labour government, perhaps dependent on the SNP, certainly not dependent on the DUP or in any way friendly to it.
The collapse of the talks over an Irish Language Act bears the hallmark of being the work of people who can’t imagine any prospect of the Union ending in the near future. Yet the demographic situation is steadily eroding for Unionism and the DUP seems intent on alienating swing voters in a future border poll to buttress its already dominant position within Unionism.
The thought that not every Gaelgoir is an ardent Republican seems never to have crossed DUP minds. Symbolism matters: does Britishness in Northern Ireland mean being cold towards Irish identity, in a way that is not true of Scotland or Wales?
Anyone wanting to get married to someone of the same sex currently has a definite incentive to vote for a United Ireland. The same might (and it is only might) apply to anyone who thinks abortion should be legal in a few months’ time.
Then there’s Brexit which, whether or not one wants to believe the specifics of any poll, is clearly making small ‘n’ nationalists and detribalised liberals rethink the constitutional question. With Brexit’s shape let alone consequences unclear, if it goes wrong blame will rest entirely on the DUP and the British government.
Ultimately, Unionists need Northern Ireland to work. As it stands, it is in danger of marking its coming centenary as a perpetually failed state.