By Brian Feeney (for the Sunday Business Post)
“Peace in return for power-sharing is what this process, from the Good Friday Agreement onwards, has always been about.” So Tony Blair said in his statement last Friday after the surreal drama at Stormont that morning.
Blair quaintly described what happened in the Assembly chamber as a “ceremony”.
He then swiftly and expertly stepped in to put his government’s spin on the disastrous day. He summarised the events in his own carefully-chosen words, said the words that Ian Paisley could not bring himself to say, and announced what will happen next March. In a display of bravura, he ignored the realities of Friday’s failure and the broader implications of the day for the political process in the North.
Despite the brave face that both Blair and the Taoiseach put on the DUP’s refusal to step up to the mark, they cannot disguise the serious conclusions that must be drawn. First is the extent and depth of unionist, - and particularly DUP - antipathy to sharing power with Sinn Féin.
So far that antipathy has been largely unquantified.
One poll showed 20 per cent of DUP voters opposed sharing power with Sinn Féin in any circumstances.
What is clear, however, is that most unionist voters voted for the DUP in 2003 and in greater numbers in 2005 because they believed Paisley would not share power with the only partner available - Sinn Féin. David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party was not destroyed merely by internal divisions about the issue of sharing power. It was primarily buried by the fact that the UUP shared power with Sinn Féin, even though that party was then the minority nationalist party. When Sinn Féin became the majority voice of nationalism in the North, unionists baulked.
By Friday afternoon it was clear that the enormous pressure the British government is exerting on the DUP to share power was producing signs of division in the hitherto monolithic DUP.
The division comes along exactly the same lines where the UUP split. In response to Blair’s attempt to seize the initiative, 12 assembly members, including four MPs, issued a statement denying there had been any indication that the DUP would agree to take on any office next March.
Their statement was issued almost simultaneously with one from the party leader.
Ian Paisley clarified his remarks in Stormont that morning: if Sinn Féin delivered on policing and justice, he would be available to act as First Minister.
He indicated that his remarks could not be construed otherwise. If divisions among the DUP Assembly members were becoming public, they were doing no more than reflecting the turmoil in the party membership as a whole.
It is known that there have been some torrid meetings during the DUP’s internal consultation process, the most difficult being in Lurgan, when Paisley was heckled.
The day before the Stormont Assembly met, one of Paisley’s long-time associates and minister in his Free Presbyterian Church, Rev Ivan Foster, went on television to say that the majority of Church members would be ‘‘heart-broken’’ if Paisley went into any political coalition with Martin McGuinness. While some DUP politicians were angered by what one described as ‘‘stabbing Paisley in the chest’’, for others, Foster’s intervention was a welcome dose of reality.
At present, it is too early to decide whether Michael Stone’s deranged incursion into Stormont will spook the DUP altogether. It is all very well for the Taoiseach and Tony Blair to say, as they inevitably would, that Stone’s crazed behaviour shows why stable political institutions are necessary in the North.
The question many DUP Assembly members will be asking is: did Stone act alone?
Did he plant all the amateurish devices around Stormont himself ? Against whom were his manic actions directed - republicans, or unionists proposing to share with republicans?
More ominously, is there a constituency to the right of the DUP which the prospect of going into political partnership with Sinn Féin has aroused?
How will such sentiments manifest themselves in the planned election campaign?
The response from Dublin and London is to press ahead as if no such difficulties exist.
There is to be a meeting of the programme for government committee at Stormont next week, Blair announced, to negotiate the details of the five appendices of the inter-governmental St Andrews Agreement.
The committee is expected to produce a package in time for the transitional Assembly to close on January 30 and for the election campaign to begin. It was a tall order before Friday. It looks impossible now.
Still the DUP will not speak to their putative partners in a Stormont administration. Still the DUP refuses - to the obvious exasperation of the Northern secretary Peter Hain, to contemplate the devolution of policing powers to the Assembly, the key Sinn Féin requirement.
As Hain reminded the DUP’s Nigel Dodds in the Commons last Wednesday, telling Sinn Féin that policing would not be devolved in his political lifetime is hardly likely to induce Sinn Féin to support the PSNI.
As Hain pointed out, the legislation enshrining the St Andrews Agreement in statute states that the summer of 2008 is the target for devolving policing and justice to a Northern administration. That date is unacceptable to unionists, for the necessary consequence of such devolution is that a Sinn Féin minister will oversee either policing or justice.
Why is it necessary? Very simple. So that republicans can say to their electorate that never again will a politically-directed police force in the North be used against the nationalist community, as the RUC was after partition.
Blair’s ‘‘peace in return for power-sharing’’ is too glib.
Republicans believe that if they are expected to recognise the Northern state and give their support to its police and justice system, they have to have guarantees that unionists or British ministers cannot use it against them. Equally, for many unionists, handing control of what has been ‘their’ police force to republicans is not just unacceptable, but unthinkable.
For the DUP to advocate such a transfer to Sinn Féin in an election campaign is impossible.
The British government’s response to this stand-off has been to push the problem further down the pipe. It is clear that, even if a deal is struck in March, there will be a crisis in spring 2008. Unionists clearly will not sign up to devolving justice and police before entering an executive in spring 2007.
Regardless of the pandemonium Michael Stone caused outside the Assembly, his appearance only served to distract from the confusion and mistrust inside. This is a confusion and mistrust which is reflected in the North’s polarised electorate. Paradoxically, the insistence of the British and Irish governments that the DUP and Sinn Féin must indicate who will be First and Deputy First Ministers next March, ostensibly to move the political process on, intensifies that polarisation.
Neither government seems to have noticed that, by insisting on such nominations, they have already decided on the results of March’s election. They are guaranteeing the demise of the UUP and the SDLP.
It will hand the North to two parties, one of whose leaders will not speak to the other - and, after Friday, is less likely to do so. Why should anyone think politics at Stormont will work any better next March?