Imagine a passenger aeroplane which is in deep trouble. Three out of its four engines have ceased to function. The fourth is badly damaged and could also malfunction soon. The plane was originally on its way to a different airport but had to be diverted because of a bad winter storm but it might never reach its diverted destination. Weather conditions are still very bad and the storm is threatening again. At the moment, visibility is poor. The pilot can not even see the ground. Things are rather desperate. If they can not land soon, they risk losing that last engine followed by disaster and tragedy.
Now let’s call that Aeroplane “the DUP”. Had it flown to its original flight path, it would have topped the poll in the Euro Election and landed safely at its originally planned destination airport. As it was, a storm broke out which we call “the TUV.” As well as preventing the plane from landing, the storm caused the damage to the plane’s four engines after it was diverted. The pilot wishes desparately to land. There is only one airfield nearby. The airfield is called “police and justice.” If they can land there, get time to refuel and fix the plane, they could all survive. But there is just one other problem. The airport has been taken over by a group of gangsters called Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein want the DUP to land at their airport but they will only allow them supplies and time to fix their plane if they agree to certain conditions.
All right, I am not the most talented story-teller when it comes to inventing make-believe and drama description. However, this analogy does highlight a number of real political incidents that are happening to the DUP. The certainties in this drama are that the DUP has been damaged but not yet finished. It still holds out a slim hope of a recovery and being able to weather the TUV storm. Much of that hope is now dependent on getting Policing and Justice devolved in a way which satisfies the majority of hard-line unionists.
A month ago, Liam Clarke wrote an article in the Sunday Times entitled “First Minister has played his cards right. If you read it, you would think “hey presto, Peter’s done a blinder and can look forward to the spoils.” However, within a week of that article, it was obvious that it was flawed as well as written prematurely. Consider particularly these comments:
“The DUP is now in a position to push for a series of side deals under the guise of measures to build confidence among unionists. These include the abolition of the Parades Commission, the retention of the PSNI full-time reserve, a more relaxed regime on the issuing of personal protection weapons to retired members of the security forces, and a gratuity package for members of the RUC’s former part-time reserve.”
Well, we now know that the full-time reserve will not remain and that Jeffrey Donaldson is still snarling. We also know that Parades Commission is still a huge sticking point. In fact, it is looking increasingly as though the lack of agreement on parades could be the sole reason that this crisis is not resolved.
Why mention Liam Clarke’s article at all then? Clarke should have waited until there was a formal announcement that the negotiations had concluded. However, in many respects, Clarke’s article was right. Peter Robinson had indeed played a ‘blinder’ on almost all aspects of the negotiations up to that point. Even now, if he can put together a package which satisfies most of the unionists (including most hard-line unionists) he could well survive to see off the threat from the TUV.
Unfortunately for Peter Robinson, the old proverb “a miss is as good as a mile” applies appropriately to his good work on Police and Justice. If he fails on this, his failure will be absolute.
His prospects of success do not look good. The issue of parades seems to be one which the parties will not be able to resolve between them. In the larger scheme of things, the DUP’s demands are unreasonable at the present time. A lot of good and difficult work has been carried out by the Parades Commission. Many streets and communities are safer and many parades are now peaceful because of its existence. In an earlier post on this subject, I argued that Policing and Justice could be devolved without parades and that the latter could be devolved at a later time to give the best chance for public confidence in the new ministry to build. Perhaps that is a concession that Sinn Fein could agree to.
That is not how Peter Robinson sees it, and with good reason. Much of the support that was lost to the TUV in the European elections would be of Unionist voters who regard the Parades Commission with contempt. Therefore its abolition would certainly be a feather in Robinson’s cap in his competition with Jim Allister.
Abolition of the parades commission is also too much of a concession for Sinn Fein to make. Speaking to the BBC a few days ago, Martin McGuinness repeated Sinn Fein’s position
“it was “absolutely preposterous” to make a demand on behalf of the Orange Order for the abolition of the Parades Commission”
From its own political perspective, Sinn Fein can not afford to concede to the DUP on parades. It has even rejected, out of hand, the recommendations contained in the interim report on the strategic review of parading headed by Lord Ashdown. Taking these two positions together, it seems unlikely that we will see the devolution of Police and Justice during this Assembly – or is it?
Martin McGuinness is now blackmailing the travellers on that DUP aeroplane. He has given the DUP until Christmas to set an actual time for the devolution of Police and Justice. It is the equivalent of saying “If you don’t land on our terms within this time limit, you will not be able to repair your plane and you will have no supplies.” It is still foggy and now a snow storm and blizzards are affecting the runway. So what does Robinson do?
He really has no choice but to land that plane. To him, it may be the lesser of two evils. If he does not, Martin McGuinness will probably carry out his threat to bring down the Executive and force fresh elections. Robinson could be ousted as first minister within weeks. It would leave the DUP in complete disarray.
Is Sinn Fein bluffing? I dont think it is this time. With the SDLP not knowing who its new leader will be until February, the timing of the ultimatum is perfect.
As we cast our minds back to just over a year ago, we remember Sinn Feins’s boycott of the Executive over the issue. They were forced to give up their boycott without apparently having extracted any clear commitment from the DUP on the timing of P & J devolution. They gave up their boycott after calculating that they would suffer electoral damage if they did not get down to the business of government. So what has changed to embolden Martin McGuinness?
The answer appears to be the change of the political landscape brought about by the TUV. Sinn Fein now see a vulnerablility in the DUP which was lacking a year ago. If the Executive is brought down, that brings fresh elections followed by Sinn Fein becoming the largest party at Stormont with McGuinness as First Minister. If the Unionist Parties refuse to go into government with a Sinn Fein First minister, who gets the flack? It would be the Unionists for being intransigent. Sinn Fein then comes out “whiter than white” within the nationalist community having also gained an electoral mandate to push through P & J.
Peter Robinson is in a perilous position. Perhaps his best option is to fudge the parades issue by asking Sinn Fein to commit to “considering” the final Ashdown report when it is made. In practice, it would be no concession at all but it might save Robinson from complete humiliation. Following that, he would then close his eyes and hope that his party can hold onto most of its existing parliamentary seats at the forthcoming General Election. That might just give him enough time to get that plane repaired. However, he still has to negotiate that storm and land it without crashing it!
Filed under: Assembly, Devolution, Jeffrey Donaldson, Martin McGuiness, Northern Ireland politics, Parades, Peter Robinson, Police and Justice, Power Sharing, Sinn Fein, Stormont, Unionism | Tagged: Assembly, Conservative Party, Devolution, DUP, Jeffrey Donaldson, Jim Allister, Martin McGuiness, Normal Politics, Northern Ireland politics, Orance Order, Parades, Parades Commission, Peter Robinson, Police and Justice, Power Sharing, Sinn Fein, Stormont, TUV, Unionism | 3 Comments »