Don’t gloat; the DUP’s emotional spasms could spell trouble for all of us

Bogeyman Brendan

Gloating over the chaos in the DUP may be understandable and even enjoyable. But it is not a sufficient response to what seems to be going on.  The full gamut of resentment at the state of politics has come to the surface of the DUP and there are dangers in it for everybody.

In the present circumstances their cup runneth over. The British government are as much to blame as republicans.   First their betrayal over the protocol , now last week they were in cahoots with Sinn Fein to  bring in the Irish language legislation that republicans  were  hinting at making an issue of confidence  in the appointment of a new first ministerial team.

At one level the charges can briskly be dismissed as paranoia. The protocol was contrived to allow for a hard Brexit with unionism paying the price. All the contortions suggest that in the end it will be mitigated.

Forget for a moment the inevitable whataboutery and the widely held belief that the DUP are largely the authors of their own misfortunes. Forget too that this is crisis incubated within a small group of 40 people and was avoidable. For it carries within it a far more serious crisis of morale which has implications for all of us, expressed in the belief that the course of events is turning irretrievably against unionists and the Union. Nationalists might welcome the trend; but the DUP’s response may harm the stability they need to benefit from it.

Rather than dwell on the elegiac poetry of events, let’s look at the prose of the   politics. Brandon Lewis’s late night interventions –   such a change from the run of UK secretaries of state before Julian Smith – were surely more  about easing the pressure on Edwin Poots than rewarding Sinn Fein. By taking on the Irish legislation as a last resort to Westminster, he saved them from falling into Sinn Fein’s obvious trap. Poots was an enthusiastic accessory to cut through Sinn Fein’s crap.  Mary Lou McDonald I saw as trying to insinuate credit for a solution to a  crisis within the DUP which Sinn Fein were threatening to exploit against all the.promises of good faith made 18 months ago. Trust therefore seems to be at a critical low ebb, perhaps- who knows?.- as tit for tat over the storm created by the Storey funeral. Or if not that, something else.  This is the  behaviour of rival street gangs on fragile truce , not responsible political parties.

Poots I can now imagine casting himself as the sacrificial lamb laying his career on the line in order to save the Assembly by successfully nominating a First Minister. In the event Sinn Fein didn’t have to lift a finger; the DUP fell apart all on their own. That’s what happens when your fortune is at the mercy of an electorate of 40.

What are the UK government up to?  The charge again them is  entirely correct,  that they are stretching  the limits of devolution by being prepared to legislate at Westminster on matters the DUP abominate  like abortion, or Irish culture  which they swallow through gritted  teeth but in their own  good time.

What they are about is trying to save the Union and they do not believe it can be saved on the DUP’s terms.  Quite the contrary, they believe the DUP is killing its chances with the crucial centre ground. Ironically Poots cast as the hard man was prepared to go along with it in this case.

By going through FM DFM nominations all over again the present alternative seems to be forge party unity keeping up pressure on the protocol and exposing a Sinn Fein threat not to nominate as hollow, because they already have the secretary of state’s promise to legislate in the bag. At best, a petty victory.

Sudden collapse of the Assembly, never likely, or a snap kamikaze election are  further  deterred by NDNA  measures in  the legislative pipeline which  keep the Executive in being without either an FM or DFM and extending  an election campaign to six weeks, But this is only the tip of an iceberg.  A period of 42 weeks can keep the Executive ticking over without a First Minister.  Stalling like this for up to a year seems wholly unrealistic. If either main party refused to nominate, how long would its other ministers stay in office?  But at least it removes a single party veto short of complete withdrawal.

But the dual veto remains potent.  If the broad  centre including  those in the main designations were to strengthen  significantly at the next Assembly election  scheduled for next May, the viability of replacing  the designations by a weighted majority would surely increase  and with it the flexibility and stability of the Assembly. Transactional politics would gradually replace the desperately arid zero sum game of entrenched sectarianism.

For now, behind  the emotional spasms  lie the powerful feeling  unionists can’t shake off, that for the sake of peace, the reformed state since 1998 has abandoned  moral standards  for a loathsome pragmatism  that  creates  false equivalence between the lawful  defenders of the state and those who would overthrow it by terrorism.  But pragmatism with self interest is long established as the natural metier of British governments.  The next example –  for some the very worst – is that it looks as if they will impose a legacy solution dictated by sympathy for  former British  soldiers that will satisfy  no faction in Northern Ireland.

I doubt if they are as committed to Northern Ireland as to Scotland but the UK government seem to prepared to  give defence of the NI Union a  try up to the extent of their limited powers under Irish self determination and under strict conditions of making the Assembly work . This degree of clarity is new and should be welcome. The old belief that the British are always bent on scuttling is not only against the evidence  of  a century but may need modifying  in the today’s circumstances of the wider threat to the Union.

Put simply Unionists generally should respond to circumstances  inconceivable  only five years ago and challenge their inner conviction that power sharing  with all its profound  frustrations must be  the slippery slope to a united Ireland. Of course it may be. But such ambiguities are the stuff of the real world. Not anybody’s notion of Biblical certainties.

 


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