by Danny Morrison
“The DUP’s satisfaction may be short-lived - and very dependent on the negotiating skills of the Sinn Féin leadership,” said Martina Purdy, the BBC’s political correspondent last Friday. She was referring to the initial and seemingly favourable response of the DUP to the proposals put to them in a document by the British and Irish governments on how to break the political deadlock and re-establish the Executive and Assembly.
The News Letter’s political correspondent also thought that the “British and Irish governments’ peace paper ... had the makings of a good deal for unionism.” SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, was worried: “They [the DUP] say they want power sharing, but don’t practice it in the local Councils. They say they want North South cooperation, but won’t name any areas where it should happen... We are concerned that the DUP have got too much and given too little.”
Under the Belfast Agreement the First and Deputy First Minister had to be elected by two majorities - from ‘designated’ unionist and nationalist Assembly members respectively. Then each party, according to its numbers, could nominate Ministers in turn, without reference to a cross-party vote.
In practice, that meant that unionists could not stop Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brun being nominated to the posts of Education and Health and Social Services.
However, it has been suggested, from various sources, though mostly by Sinn Féin’s opponents, that Sinn Féin has agreed to a new type of voting arrangement. The fact that Sinn Féin made no comment until Saturday only added to the tale.
This is what the sources were claiming. Firstly, that the First and Deputy First Ministers (DFM) might be decoupled and no longer elected jointly but singly, thus saving the DUP the ‘embarrassment’ at having to vote, for example, for Martin McGuinness as DFM. Secondly, that the parties would then nominate their people to the remaining Ministerial posts and either the entire slate or each individual Minister - it is not clear which is the actual case - would be voted on.
In practice, this would mean that the DUP, as the largest party and leading representative of the unionist community, could exercise a veto over Sinn Féin’s choice of Ministers not of its liking: for example, Martin McGuinness as Minister for Anything or Minister for Justice or Policing (if Justice and Policing are later devolved as two new Ministries).
But the DUP could ambush and frustrate Sinn Féin’s nominees under only one particular scenario. That would be if all of the DUP’s Ministerial nominees were voted on first, and in the interests of goodwill Sinn Féin either endorsed them or didn’t object. Then when it came the turn of Sinn Féin’s Ministers to be elected the DUP objected to particular choices. This scenario presupposes that the Sinn Féin leadership is as thick as a plank and wouldn’t have attempted to ascertain in advance the DUP’s voting intentions. In another scenario, if Ministers were being elected in order of rank and the DUP pulled the same stunt Sinn Féin could then retaliate by blocking the next DUP nominee, or, it could simply bring the Executive down by walking out.
At the time of writing, I haven’t seen the governments’ paper and have no idea of the status of this DUP-influenced proposal in relation to the Assembly. Sinn Féin’s initial reluctance to talk about the rumoured contents of the paper - whether because it wanted to brief its membership first or because of the confidentiality or delicacy of the negotiations - was a bit of a misjudgement.
It allowed the SDLP to claim that they were better negotiators than Sinn Féin and allowed them to appear as the guardian of nationalist gains under the Belfast Agreement. (Of course, this was rich coming from the party which prematurely jumped on board the PSNI bandwagon before the requisite changes have been fully implemented, thus making it even more difficult to get those changes.)
Sinn Féin’s negotiating position is doubtlessly as strategic and considered as ever. Its objective, said Conor Murphy, is to ensure “the faithful implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.” On Saturday Martin McGuinness told BBC’s Inside Politics, “One thing you can be sure of is we are not going to change that rule,” in reference to the method of the election of the Executive.
So that’s that lie nailed.
Now the method of voting in a new Executive is just one of several areas of major disagreement. The others, in relation to the unfettered operation and expansion of the North-South bodies, the workings of the North-South ministerial council, and unionist demands for a visible dimension to IRA decommissioning, all remain difficult and contentious.
The demand that the IRA put all its weapons ‘beyond reach’ is as absurd as ever. Unionists don’t trust the IRA but the act of decommissioning requires them to trust the IRA when it says it is doing it or is pictured doing it! Total decommissioning remains unprovable and has more to do with the DUP getting one over the UUP. (The UUP’s mistake is that had it worked the Agreement, peace would have bedded down, and it would have been more legitimately able to make the claim that its strategy had achieved that aim - though it does remain unprovable!)
The two governments insist that Sinn Féin and the DUP give definitive answers to their proposals before November 25th or else negotiations will be postponed indefinitely.
I am still of the view that the DUP under Ian Paisley cannot do a deal with republicans and I will be amazed the day he becomes First Minister with a Sinn Féin/Martin McGuinness Deputy First Minister!