Open Unionism


A forum to discuss new ideas and perspectives on Unionism…

Peter Robinson’s choices

It looks as thought the DUP have managed to again refuse to name a date for the devolution of policing and justice, a feat they have pulled off time and again since St. Andrews. There is no doubt that the British, Irish and even US governments would like them to do it but Robinson at least outwardly seems unmoved. The reality may be different but thus far Robinson has managed to hold the line quite well: assisted one might suggest by the other two main unionist parties opposition to the devolution of P&J; though Robinson might wish he was not receiving such help.

Despite this there is a feeling that little by little Robinson and the DUP are being inched towards the eventual devolution of P&J. In an way although they provide a bulwark against P&J for the meantime, indirectly the UUP and TUV also provide a goad wielded by SF and the governments to force Robinson eventually into P&J devolution. This is of course because SF could threaten to pull down the whole agreement and hence, bring about an election: an election which would be very likely to result in a SF First Minister in the form of Martin McGuinness with Robinson reduced to the role of his deputy (in reality coequal but that is not how SF would sell it, nor how the would DUP feel). I mentioned recently on slugger that this possibility is the supreme folly visited upon unionism by Peter Robinson for party political advantage: that it is a folly which may be hurting Robinson is poetic justice; though that is cold comfort to unionists more interested in the advantage of unionism than the disadvantage of the DUP.

More below the fold…

The recurrent danger now created by the DUP and to be fair given life by the TUV threatening to take a large slice of the DUP’s old vote is that if Sinn Fein fail to get their own way; McGuinness can resign and force an election: an election which will almost certainly see a large number of DUP MLAs lose their seats and Sinn Fein as the largest party. That of course thanks to the DUP’s negotiations after St. Andrews would result in a Sinn Fein First Minister. Hence, a collapse of the current situation and an election would be a personal disaster for a number of DUP MLAs (Jim Allister’s P45 comments comes to mind) and for Robinson himself forced to be second fiddle to McGuinness. Hence, despite their consistent defeating and stymieing of Sinn Fein’s agenda at Stormont, the DUP are always vulnerable to Sinn Fein’s “nuclear option” of collapse.

The fact that Sinn Fein have not collapsed despite plenty of provocation is, however, interesting and it is likely that the “nuclear option” is closer than the DUP think to mutually assured destruction and, hence, for unionism as a whole (if not for individual DUP MLAs or Robinson personally) collapse of the current system would be far from a disaster.

The most likely outcome of a new set of elections would, as I mentioned above, be SF as the largest party and, since the TUV would not take seats in the executive, a majority of nationalist ministers. In reality of course such a scenario would almost certainly be unacceptable to all unionists, and, hence, the assembly would be re-collapsed by unionists unless of course the British government stepped in to collapse it. Either way this would inevitably lead back to further negotiations and it is precisely that which holds out the hope of further gains by unionists. It is fairly clear that overall the current agreement is less satisfactory to unionists than nationalists and it is unionists who have the ideas and plans for modification: centrally around the possibilities for voluntary coalitions; a proper opposition and weighted majority voting. It is almost impossible to see Sinn Fein agreeing to such proposals within the current agreement and within the current agreement they have an absolute veto. Hence, collapsing the agreement and renegotiation is the only realistic option by which we can get to the possibility of a more normal, democratic (and hopefully more competent) form of government.

Of course negotiations are a two (or more) way process and republicans would presumably try to advance their agenda. However, at St Andrews unionism emerged with a superior state of affairs than it went in with: that despite the DUP’s at times foolish behaviour with idiotic side deals and the folly of further negotiations in Downing Street after the deal was supposedly done. If Robinson went into negotiations along with the other two unionist parties there is a high chance that unionism as a whole would come out with a better agreement. Robinson proved at St. Andrews that Sinn Fein were far from infallible as negotiators (in the process also underlining Trimble’s utter incompetence). With the help of Allister and some of the more sensible members of the UUP there is every reason to be confident that a superior deal could be achieved: even more confidence if unionists could try to avoid jostling for party advantage. A united front from all unionists under an effective leader has not been tried before but if Robinson had the strategic vision and nerve to attempt this he could achieve an enormous amount for unionism and would in the process become one of the great leaders of unionism.

All the above presupposes a degree of confidence within unionism; something I have previously argued there is good reason for.

There are of course fears in all this: fears sometimes in the past stoked by other unionists as a stick with which to beat their rivals. One is that every time unionism rejects a agreement the next agreement is less beneficial to it: that is one of the fallacies which has been repeated so frequently as to have become a supposed fact. Sunningdale may have been a better agreement for unionists than the Belfast Agreement though it is in honesty difficult to compare two agreements separated by over twenty years. However, it is fairly clear that St Andrews is an advance on the Belfast Agreement. In addition there is also the simple fact that republicanism has always been able to threaten a return to violence if it did not get its way. It is fairly clear that this obsession dominated much of British government policy towards Northern Ireland in the run up to the Belfast Agreement; it was also relevant in the Anglo Irish Agreement and probably also at Sunningdale.

Now clearly republicanism could go back to violence: whatever McGuinness or the others say should be taken with a large pinch of salt. However, the unionist analysis is that essentially the IRA lost and managed to get far more from its surrender than it should have. In addition now following 11th September 2001 the world (and especially the USA) has a very different view of terrorism; a view which would make a return to large scale violence by the republican movement much more difficult. As such the traction which this threat holds is much less potent. Clearly it still has some relevance and Jim Allister may well be correct in suggesting that mainstream and dissident republicans have more connection than is usually admitted. However, a major return to violence in the immediate future seems unlikely, would have relatively little community support and would massively isolate Sinn Fein. In addition if unionism is making decisions primarily predilected to avoid the IRA going back to violence, it is being blackmailed as well as conned.

The second concern is of course a return to Direct Rule. This was waved by the DUP as the dreaded alternative to their entering power sharing. It is, no doubt, correct that Peter Hain was threatening a series of unpleasant occurrences if the DUP had not entered power sharing. However, we need to go back and remember the context: devolution here was to be the fig leaf to cover Blair’s exit from power; an exit created chiefly by his involvement in the greatest British foreign policy debacle since Suez. We need to remember the dodgy dossier, the scandal around Dr. David Kelly’s death and the appalling fall from grace for “a pretty straight sort of guy” that the Iraq War represented for Blair. It is in that context that Blair, fatally weakened, needed a “success” with which to end his time in government; that success was to be devolved government for Northern Ireland.

If we returned to Direct Rule it is highly unlikely that Gordon Brown would have the authority, power or inclination to threaten unionists in the way which Blair did (via Hain). In addition although I am not predisposed to trust the Tories implicitly; it is highly unlikely that an incoming Conservative government (if that is what we have in June) will treat unionism in the way in which Hain threatened. Incidentally I very much doubt all or even many of Hain’s threats would have become a reality but that is a topic for another day.

Of course an additional danger for certain unionists in the collapse of the current agreement is the one I alluded to earlier: Jim Allister’s P45s for DUP MLAs and their assorted retainers. These people have a vested interest in advancing towards voluntary coalition in a much more gradual fashion or indeed in maintaining the status quo. However, the real dangers for unionism of the current agreement collapsing are colossally exaggerated. The potential gains for unionism are on the other hand very significant.

Even without a collapse of the current assembly, Robinson will be forced to face a Stormont election by 2011 at the latest and it seems unlikely, even in the most optimistic scenario for the DUP, that the TUV will have vanished or that the CUs will have fallen much further. As such Robinson is likely to be in a very difficult position by 2011. Hence, if he has the strategic vision (something I have never been convinced of) he should not allow the danger of a Sinn Fein led collapse of the agreement to worry him. Rather he should point all this out to Sinn Fein and indeed to the general public. He should state that he is unworried by a Sinn Fein collapse and that in such a scenario he would ,along with the TUV and CUs, seek further negotiations. This would at a stroke remove from Sinn Fein one of the few effective sticks they have to beat him with; he would expose the Sinn Fein threats as hollow. Indeed he could then goad Sinn Fein all he wants pointing out that if the current agreement falls Sinn Fein can expect to get a less good deal in the future. This would considerably strengthen his hand in the current negotiations, indeed it would also probably be an effective way of gaining back some of the softer TUV vote.

If the agreement did then collapse and further negotiations ensue Robinson would be the clear leader of unionism in those negotiations. If, in that context, he led all of mainstream unionism (DUP, CUs and TUV) into those negotiations he would be very likely to come away with more than unionism currently has. Robinson therefore has to make a decision. “To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them.”

Unlike Hamlet Robinson by this decision would not be committing political suicide; rather he would be very likely to gain for unionism and would in the process demonstrate that he has the strategic vision to match his undoubted tactical cunning and mastery of detail. He might cease to be First Minister in a state of apparent weakness but would be very likely to exit successful negotiations ready to resume the mantle of First Minister, enhanced by the victory and could well end up feted as one of the greatest unionist leaders of all time. He could be seen as the man who comprehensively out manoeuvred Sinn Fein and managed to create a proper stable form of government within Northern Ireland: an epitaph which has eluded all recent unionist leaders. If he could achieve all that and have power sharing with it: it might be that future generations make plans to encourage visits to his tomb.


Filed under: unionist unity?

2 Responses

  1. thedissenter says:

    Just wondering in this where the step improvement exists between 1998 and St Andrews (actual/relative). It’s a statement that needs elaboration. Just for better understanding of whole article. Not a criticism of the line of thought.

  2. cublue says:

    There would be no guarantee the the DUP would remain the biggest party.

    A reasonable showing from the TUV 8-10 seats and a gain of say 4-6 seats for the CU’s could remove 12 – 16 seats from the DUP leaving The TUV with 8-10, the CU’s with 22-24 and the DUP with 20 – 24.

    Having looked at the EU election results those are not unreasonable and even the best case shows equal numbers of seats.

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