By Jude Wilson
When politicians get too far ahead of their electorate they risk marching over a cliff-edge; when columnists write too far ahead of events, they risk smashing a custard pie into their own face. As I write this, the north of Ireland’s senior politicians, along with the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland are at Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast, bleary-eyed after an all-night attempt to find agreement between two parties with a wary eye on their respective electorate.
Sinn Fein know that if they are to retain their ‘self-respect’ (Gerry Adams’s word) and the respect of their electorate, the waiting must end and policing and justice powers must be repatriated from Westminister to the north of Ireland. The DUP know they must agree to repatriation if they’re to avoid a post-Iris election which could be disastrous for them, but they also know that they need political protection against those voters who like the cut of Jim Allister and his stone-age-unionism party, the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).
Will a deal be done? I’ll tell you later in the article. Meanwhile put down that custard pie and I’ll explain why the present crisis has come about.
According to the DUP, it’s because Sinn Fein are emotional infants - they have gone into “a hissy fit”, they’ve “thrown their toys out of the pram”. Whatever the DUP knows about sexual matters, they know nothing about babies. I’ve reared four and not one of them showed patience for three minutes, let alone three years.
That’s how long Sinn Fein have been waiting for the devolution of policing and justice. Three months after the St Andrew’s discussions, Sinn Fein took the hugely risky step of supporting the new policing service of the PSNI and urging its electorate to do likewise. The DUP, in contrast, fearful of its electorate, have spent the last three years insisting that policing and justice repatriation must wait on public (that is, unionist) confidence.
But then came January 2010 and what Harold Macmillan called ‘events, dear boy, events’. Suddenly the DUP was transformed from a macho party cheerfully tweaking the nose of the Shinners to a party reeling from its self-inflicted wounds. Iris and her 19-year-old lover, Iris and that #50,000 from developers, Iris and alleged links with developers, Peter and alleged failure to report financial transactions - the DUP’s electorate looked on and was appalled, Jim Allister and his stone-age TUV looked on and moaned with pleasure.
Desperate, the DUP stopped talking about ‘public confidence’ and started stammering about ‘suitable conditions’ for policing and justice transfer.
This turned out to mean that the DUP needed cover. If we agree to policing and justice repatriation, they declared, the hated Parades Commission must go and a smooth path paved for the Orange Order to march the Queen’s Highway (and particularly that part running through nationalist areas).
And that, as I write, is the sticking point. There’s agreement on all sides that policing and justice should be devolved, probably before the Westminster general election in early May. If it isn’t, Sinn Fein will finally decide that the DUP are incapable of sharing power and will withdraw from the Executive. This will trigger an Assembly election, with the unionist vote in all likelihood splitting three ways between the DUP, the UUP and Jim Allister’s TUV. Cue Sinn Fein as the largest single party, cue unionist refusal to accept Martin McGuinness as First Minister, and cue the collapse of the Assembly.
But but but but. The DUP have waited so many long decades for power, they’ll do nearly anything to avoid such a Domesday. At the same time, they’ve got to cater to that part of the unionist electorate draining away to the TUV. And so they must have the one thing that the troglodyte portion of unionism most values: the legal permission to prance in triumph in front of their nationalist neighbours. Fearful of straying too far ahead of this unreconstructed percentage of the electorate, the DUP is calling for the public decapitation of the Parades Commission.
Sinn Fein, in contrast, need to be careful their electorate doesn’t conclude that so-called power-sharing hasn’t resulted in little beyond the amused contempt of the DUP. Cross-border bodies, a conflict memorial centre at Long Kesh, an Irish Language Act - what’s become of these, many ask. If things fall apart at Hillsborough later today, quite a few nationalists and republicans will be quietly pleased at the prospect of the DUP getting beaten by the electoral stick they have cut for themselves.
So which way will it fall? My guess is (glances fearfully at custard pie) is there’ll be a deal of some sort. Policing and Justice will be repatriated before the British general election in May; the Parades Commission won’t be abolished but it’ll be hedged around with supportive structures that may over time take over more decision-making powers.
It would be instructive to consider the viability of a state where continued devolved government has been decided by an organization which bars Catholics from membership and openly mocks the Catholic faith. But let’s instead consider the words of Clifford Smyth, the biographer of Ian Paisley. A couple of weeks ago, writing in The Belfast Telegraph, Mr Smyth expressed the firm belief that ‘policing and justice detaches Northern Ireland further from the United Kingdom and is a key element in Sinn Fein’s long-term strategy for Irish unification.’
If enough unionists agree with Smyth, the DUP will need not a fig-leaf but a parachute, should they give Sinn Fein a date for repatriation.