By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
Peter Robinson made a speech last week calling for decisions to be taken by a weighted-majority vote in Stormont.
Was it deliberately timed to be mischievous, given that he made the speech almost exactly on the anniversary of Mark Durkan’s gaffe at Oxford last year, when he looked forward to a time the parallel consent required by the Good Friday Agreement would no longer be necessary?
Perhaps not but it is no coincidence that the 65 per cent weighted majority Robinson advocated would be reached by the combined votes of the DUP, UUP and SDLP. Together these parties make up 64.8 per cent of the assembly. In such circumstances you can be sure that on crucial issues the cadet unionists, the nauseating Alliance party, would adopt their default position of voting with unionists as they do for example in Belfast city council and thereby easily exceed 65 per cent.
So was Robinson’s speech an offer to Durkan to put his money where his mouth is, or where his mouth was this time last year before the consequences of his remarks were explained to him? Was it an offer Robinson believes Durkan can’t refuse if he’s ever again to enjoy any power at Stormont?
Unlikely. Even Durkan would be able to see that to accept such a proposal would be a quick death for his party instead of its present lingering one.
Robinson’s remarks certainly weren’t directed at Sinn Fein.
So what was Robinson up to? Buying into the perceived consensus in unionism, that’s what.
That perceived consensus is that unionists don’t like sharing power but especially they don’t like sharing power when the dominant nationalist party is Sinn Fein. The most immediate consequence of a 65 per cent weighted majority would be to exclude Sinn Fein from decision-making and delight unionists.
Make no mistake about it, Robinson was delivering a more serious message. By going on the record about a weighted majority Robinson was repudiating power sharing and partnership between nationalism and unionism, the fundamental concept at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement.
Any 65 per cent majority would necessarily comprise both unionist parties and the smaller nationalist party - in short modified majority rule. Not what he agreed and signed up to at St Andrews.
Of course the real driving force behind Robinson’s speech and his anxiety to renege on the St Andrews deal is his fear of Jim Allister in the British general election next May.
Allister could put up candidates in a few Westminster seats like East Antrim, South Antrim and North Antrim, where a split unionist vote wouldn’t mean a nationalist elected but do untold damage to the DUP by letting in a couple of UCUNF candidates. Robinson’s first outing in an election as party leader in June’s European elections was disastrous. Jim Allister took 28 per cent of the total unionist vote and Sinn Fein topped the poll.
A repetition next May would have serious effects on Robinson’s leadership of the DUP with an assembly election to follow in 2011.
Robinson’s MPs like Depooty Dawds, David Simpson, Gregory Campbell and Willie McCrea were all members of the dirty dozen who signed the 2006 declaration denying they had any part in negotiations with Sinn Fein.
As next May’s Westminster poll looms closer just watch as they distance themselves from the Good Friday Agreement, the St Andrews Agreement and the concept of power sharing.
They will already be able to distance themselves from the assembly as a result of the end of double-jobbing [mostly] in the DUP.
Robinson doesn’t want to be stuck in the position of advocating partnership and devolution of policing and justice, while the majority of his party’s MPs and candidates in the British general election repudiate both.
As a result it looks as though the first minister will be fighting May’s general election on a platform opposed to the basic concepts he has signed up to and the procedures he operates on a daily basis.
The dishonesty of the whole exercise will be apparent to all, especially Jim Allister who will point out repeatedly that Peter Robinson knows perfectly well there is no chance of nationalists agreeing to what Robinson proposes and the unrealisable demand for a weighted majority is merely a plank in his election platform.