By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)
Yesterday’s statement by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Prime Minister Tony Blair fired the campaign starting gun for the March 7 assembly elections.
The statement is also an indication that as far as both the Irish and British governments are concerned, the election is a two-horse race between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
It is going to offer slim pickings for the SDLP and UUP as both parties struggle to find an answer to the question ‘What are they for?’
The result of the governments’ posture is to maximise support for SF and the DUP.
In effect both governments are asking the voters of each of the north’s two communities to endorse the respective positions of their tribal leaders - encourage the DUP to share power and encourage SF to support the police and criminal justice system.
They think these encouragements are necessary because it’s far from clear that the DUP will be able to deliver its part of the bargain Dublin and London have concocted.
Since Sunday’s vote Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have both already encouraged people in nationalist districts to report serious crimes to the police - assaults, rape, aggravated burglary, causing death by dangerous driving.
On the other side of the fence Ian Paisley is paralysed by the bigots his lifetime of inflammatory rhetoric has encouraged to join his party.
He has so far proved unable even to convince a majority of the MPs in his party to support sharing power. As soon as one like Jeffrey Donaldson suggests it is a possibility, another one like Nigel Dodds tries to postpone the prospect indefinitely.
Within the party there is a grim tussle going on for selection for assembly seats.
There is a distinct possibility that Paisley will end up with an assembly party opposed to the verbal assurances their leader has given Mr Blair. For those reasons Sinn Fein made their ard fheis motion highly conditional on the DUP delivering the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
For those same reasons both governments are appealing to SF to help what are laughingly called the ‘modernisers’ in the DUP.
They want SF to move on support for policing institutions before the election: in other words to breach the terms of the resolution passed on Sunday which says that ‘only when the power-sharing institutions are established and the ard chomhairle is satisfied that the policing and justice powers will be transferred’ will the motion be implemented. SF will not move. Here’s why. The DUP will not enter this election campaign with a manifesto advocating power-sharing. They can’t, because a majority in their party opposes the concept, and why wouldn’t they, since Paisley spent the last 37 years railing against it? What Sinn Fein has done is set the scene for another set of negotiations in the period from the election results on March 8 to the proposed establishment of the executive on March 26 - a crucial 16 days.
Quite right too. Only when they see the election results will they know whether Paisley can deliver power-sharing.
Will Paisley need the support of the surviving UUP assembly members to complete the Good Friday institutions which, remember, the DUP has never agreed? Or will Paisley be able to ride roughshod over his dissenting bigots, secure in the knowledge that seats in an executive and committee chairs are in his gift and that the lure of filthy lucre has proved just as tempting for his hot gospellers as it is for fenian sinners?
The DUP is afraid of its voters so its manifesto will be cowardly, full of bombast and bluster, castigating Sinn Fein as the great evil over whom Protestant voters must triumph despite the fact that not one DUP vote will have the slightest effect on SF’s vote.
Only when the election is safely over and the DUP has consigned its UUP rival to oblivion will Paisley be able to contemplate delivering on his political obligations.
Suggesting that SF can in any way help in this intra-unionist bigotfest is fanciful in the extreme.
SF has delivered on all its obligations. How would they join the Policing Board between now and March 7 anyway?
Now they can sit back and enjoy the spectacle of Paisley on the frying pan. There’s plenty of him to roast.