By Tom McGurk (for the Sunday Business Post)
Just before Christmas, Peter Robinson of the DUP and Reg Empey of the UUP attended a secret meeting hosted by the Orange Order. It was chaired by the order’s Grand Master, Robert Saulters, and took place at Schomberg House in Belfast, the headquarters of the Orange Order in Ireland.
There was a single item on the agenda - unionist unity in the face of the growing threat of both Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice party and the more recent threat of a Sinn Fein withdrawal from the Assembly which would lead to fresh Assembly elections It was the first time the two major unionist parties had met in such circumstances - and, if anything, had cleared the way for such a meeting, it was the passing of the Ian Paisley era.
Having spent a generation destroying the political power of the UUP, there was no way there could have been any rapprochement while Paisley ran the DUP. What also concentrated unionist minds was the possibility that, in any Assembly election, the unionist vote - split three ways - would have left Sinn Fein the largest party (as they proved to be the 2009 European elections) and Martin McGuinness as First Minister.
In return for hosting the meeting, Saulters, on behalf of the Orange Order, insisted that any deal on the devolution of justice and policing would have to throw open the whole question of parades.
Two weeks later, in early January there was a second secret meeting in Britain. This time a representative of David Cameron’s Conservative Party was also present. Among the items discussed was the possibility of agreed unionist candidates in Westminster constituencies in the general election (especially in South Belfast and Fermanagh South Tyrone) and unionist support for a Cameron government with a small majority.
It is important to factor this context into the current crisis gripping power-sharing. For unionists in general, the Labour era is ending and, under a Conservative government they sense there would be the potential to rally a unified unionist power bloc and the possibility of re-shaping the Good Friday political settlement to their requirements.
If anything has stiffened DUP resistance to devolving policing and justice to the North in advance of the Westminster elections, it is the prospect of a new political context between London and Dublin.
Quite simply, the argument of some in the DUP - for example Nigel Dodds and Gregory Campbell - has been that they have no intention of facing the unionist electorate with Jim Allister’s charge that ‘‘they have handed over control of the police to Sinn Fein-IRA’’ hanging around their necks. Equally, if Sinn Fein want to walk out and trigger new Assembly elections, there is the possibility that a new voting arrangement with the UUP would leave the DUP still as the largest bloc. They would also face the electorate without the accusation that they had sold out on policing.
Those who last week hung their heads in despair at the sight of two prime ministers being dragged to Hillsborough, apparently to re-enact the battle of Drumcree and Garvaghy Road, forget how important an emotional fact this is for traditional unionism.
We mustn’t forget that it was David Trimble’s two-step down Garvaghy Road, hand in hand with Ian Paisley, that delivered him the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party in 1995.
This time around, there is the real possibility that the now Baron Trimble of Lisnagarvey could return to frontline politics in any new Cameron led government, perhaps with a senior post in the Northern Ireland Office.
With the advent of a new Tory administration, unionist political antennae are twitching at the prospect of changed times and a sympathetic administration in London to help put manners on the political growth of Sinn Fein. Equally, there must be growing gloom on Merrion Street at the prospect of the old Orange card being played again in the 21st century.
The suggestion that a new Cameron administration might depart from the now long-enshrined political consensus that has built up between London and Dublin, and that delivered the Good Friday Agreement, is very disturbing.
It is worth remembering that, during the 1990s,the size of John Major’s political majority at Westminster and its dependence on unionist votes stymied all political movement on the North. Progress became possible only when Tony Blair came to power with a large majority.
The political prospects for the future are not the only change in the air at Hillsborough. Post-Paisley, there is now increasing evidence that the DUP see power-sharing merely as a device for political containment, not for political consensus. Beyond the day-to-day affairs of the Assembly, they refuse to enter into any long term planning or reform that might fundamentally change the wider context of society in the Six Counties.
Their attitude to an Irish language bill, for example, cannot be explained by anything other than deep-rooted prejudice and cultural insecurity.
The voting shapes may have changed, the alignment of the parties may look different, Stormont may have new seating and the latest technology but, underneath it all, the DUP still stands for what it has always stood for - political supremacy over the nationalist community.
It is truly astonishingly that, with growing unemployment and the singular poverty of the North as an economic region, the DUP’s greatest concern last week, despite the two prime ministers present, was Garvaghy Road.
None of the benefits of the peace process seems to have softened any of their hearts. The support of the Irish American community in the US for the first time for a shared Northern Ireland; the goodwill of the EU; the new political rapport between London and Dublin. Nothing, it seems, has changed anything in the DUP’s minds - they are still determined, apparently, ‘‘to close one eye and be King’’.
In truth, they are incapable of power-sharing - and without them there can’t be any. It may be difficult to swallow, but the inevitable conclusion to draw from Hillsborough this week is that, with the DUP the largest party in unionism, effective power sharing is impossible.
Even more depressingly, the other consequence of a new political alignment with the UUP would be to force that party to the right - and even force some of its moderates out, as has already happened. For example, three leading members, all Catholics, left following news of the secret meeting last week with the DUP.
For Sinn Fein, too, the consequences could be considerable in the long run. It was the possibility of a new political era with power-sharing as the instrument of change to create a civic society based on equality that brought the republican movement into constitutional politics.
Adams and McGuinness hitched their wagon to that star, and they have no plan B. And how real is the threat of London and Dublin running the North if devolution should fail and if a Cameron administration were in power in London?
There is an increasing sense, now, that we are at the end of an era. Against the spectre of increasing indifference south of the border, the North may be slipping back into the worst of its old habits. Hillsborough last week looked more like an ending of something than the beginning of anything.