The downsides of no devolution for the DUP

Yesterday, the BBC reported details of an NUJ rebuke for the North Antrim DUP MP, Ian Paisley, following “unwarranted and unworthy” personalised remarks made on Facebook about News Letter reporter Sam McBride.

The source of Mr Paisley’s resentment appears to have been the implication that the DUP were indirectly culpable for the forthcoming sweeping liberalisation of abortion law in Northern Ireland by blocking a deal to restore the assembly which requires the introduction of an Irish Language Act.

An objective person might wonder if this is a stretch. After all, how could the DUP have known that avoiding devolution could cause the intervention of Parliament on devolved issues ?

But then I cast my mind back to a statement released in the early January of 2013 by the then DUP Leader and First Minister, Peter Robinson, in the height of the flag protests that were taking place at that time. During the protests, the DUP faced calls from some of the organisers to withdraw from powersharing and reinstate direct rule, in order to eject Sinn Féin from government. In response, Robinson, clearly addressing his own support base, sought to remind everyone of the consequences :

Some of these individuals have a track record of attacking fellow unionists at every opportunity.  This is the Direct Rule that unionists, who lived under it previously, always referred to as “Dublin Rule” because of the joint manner with which decisions were taken by London and Dublin under Direct Rule.

This is the Direct Rule that left unionism powerless and put Sinn Fein in the driving seat with a Dublin government fighting the nationalist case while the British government remained neutral.   Let these so-called “leaders” set out their case as to how Direct Rule will get the flag back or aid the unionist cause.

Let them explain to the people the benefit of Water Charging and higher Regional Rates which would automatically follow Direct Rule.  And are they content to have Westminster impose same sex marriages and abortion on demand on our community?  Such folly.  Have they so quickly forgotten the decisions of direct rule in the past?”

While many of us would differ from Mr Robinson on the emphasis of these remarks, it is a straightforward matter of historical fact that they are essentially correct. Almost every “reversal” of the Unionist position has taken place under direct rule. Every refusal to sue for compromise has led to a worse outcome. There is no doubt in my mind that this central truth lay behind Robinson’s work, beginning in the late 1980s, to gradually move the DUP towards powersharing and participation.

Returning to the present, it is difficult to believe, given Mr Robinson’s public remarks, alongside the status of the UK Parliament and the constant threat from liberal Labour MPs, that the possibility of Parliament acting to change the law in this way could not have been foreseen by the DUP’s tacticians. It is widely believed that the DUP were trying to find a way to get themselves off the hook over marriage equality and that the UK Parliament could have come to the rescue in this regard; it beggars belief that they did not believe that abortion reform could come through a similar mechanism.

For that reason, Sam McBride’s analysis, by any objective measure, appears to stand.

Looking ahead, the DUP would be well advised to take close consideration of Mr Robinson’s other predictions – in particular, with reference to his comments on “Dublin rule”. During his remarks to the press when Boris Johnson visited Dublin last week on Monday, the Taoiseach made it clear that direct rule would not be an option without some kind of consultative role. He reiterated this during Leader’s Questions in the Dáil today :

The imposition of direct rule by Westminster on Northern Ireland is not something that the Government can support. We believe it would be contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and, in particular, the St. Andrews Agreement. However, if the sovereign British Government were to impose it, we would seek a consultative role under the auspices of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement. I imparted that view to Prime Minister Johnson when he was in Dublin recently.

These comments leave little room for doubt that direct rule with Dublin consultation is being worked on by dutiful staff both in Whitehall and Iveagh House.

I’m sure the point will eventually come when the DUP have to ask themselves and their supporters exactly what else they are prepared to give up in order to continue blocking an Irish language act. But I’ve no doubt that Sinn Féin are quietly hopeful that it will take some time for the penny to drop.