By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)
Peter Brooke used to call it “rustling in the undergrowth”.
It’s thought he was referring to political movement in the north. Then it was always difficult to know what Peter Brooke’s cryptic comments meant. Wags said that unlike the mafia, who made you an offer you couldn’t refuse, Brooke made politicians here an offer they couldn’t understand.
Brooke was talking about movement in the republican camp all those years ago. Now the ‘rustling’ is coming from the DUP.
Publicly their position hasn’t moved at all. They still oppose the Good Friday Agreement, they still won’t speak to Sinn Féin, they still don’t believe the IRA has stood down as a military force and so on.
And yet for the first time in his life Ian Paisley attended a British Labour party conference and made a speech, no matter that his remarks were typically churlish and belligerent. For the first time in his life Ian Paisley is leading a DUP delegation to meet a Catholic archbishop - Sean Brady, the primate of All Ireland, a man whose office and role he has disdained in the most vituperative terms over the years.
Other examples of movement could be provided. Now why would the oul curmudgeon be doing any of that do you think? Why lay himself open to accusations of U-turns, hypocrisy, turning turtle, that he has used so often against opponents?
There can only be one conclusion. The DUP is preparing for a seismic shift. Isn’t that the phrase that Tony Blair uses for such events?
Two other pieces of evidence.
First, the DUP made public a few weeks ago that, in imitation of Sinn Féin, they are conducting a consultation within the party about the way forward - this in a party where decisions are carried one-nil. Secondly, and far more important, at the Labour party conference Ian Paisley told his listeners that there would have to be an election after any new deal with republicans. Aha. So it’s not no, nay, never, never, again no more?
Paisley is quite right. There will have to be an election for lots of reasons. One is to fire-proof him and his party.
Remember he and they went into the 2005 British general election promising they wouldn’t sell the pass to Sinn Féin. Well all right, he’s been going into elections for 40 years promising not to sell the pass to Sinn Féin. The point is his party won big time in 2005 because unionist voters believed the DUP wouldn’t deal with Sinn Féin. Now if they’re going to deal they need an election to ratify the deal.
Obvious, isn’t it?
Another advantage of an election on a deal is that it will wipe out poor old Reg Empey’s lot.
What are they going to do? Campaign against a deal? Besides, the current assembly is a snapshot of the political scene in November 2003 and unionist politics have changed dramatically since then.
Today’s performance by the government’s puppet theatre, confirming the IRA has run down its military capacity, by a remarkable coincidence just in time for the parties to take the report to Scotland with them, will allow Paisley to do a fair bit of obligatory huffing and puffing about the IRA - but he knows the game’s up.
By the time of the next IMC report in spring 2007 even Paisley will no longer be able to sustain the pretence that nothing has changed. It will be time to tell his voters that the only way to ‘save Ulster’ from ever-increasing Dublin interference is to go into an assembly with Sinn Féin but this time claiming checks and balances that the dreaded Trimble never achieved.
It doesn’t matter whether the claim is true or not. The important point is that Paisley knows he will get overwhelming endorsement from his voters. The icing on the cake for the rest of the DUP is that they can hide behind Paisley in such an election.
There is a strong conviction in the DUP that only Paisley can deliver a sea change as huge as going into an administration with Martin McGuinness - that if the party can’t deliver powers to Stormont in Paisley’s lifetime, then no successor could do so in the foreseeable future without being accused of being a Lundy.