The DUP’s decision to ask Rev Mervyn Gibson – a non party member – to join Jeffrey Donaldson as a Haass talks delegate didn’t come as a surprise to me.
In an earlier column I had said that if there was to be a deal on parades then it couldn’t just be struck by the DUP and Sinn Fein: no deal would hold if it didn’t have the nod of approval from the Orange Order.
Their scuppering (egged on by some elements of the UUP) of a potential deal in early 2010 left the Parades Commission in situ and marched us to where we are now.
Mervyn Gibson’s presence at the table (and it seems pretty clear to me that he is there with the formal approval of the Orange Order) may – just may – make it easier to put something better in place.
The appointment is also an indication that the DUP is getting itself back on track after what has been a horrible summer for them.
They have managed to split the Orange Order away from their anti-Maze alliance with the UUP and TUV, making it harder for either Jim Allister (whose party won’t be at the talks) or Mike Nesbitt (who has nominated the very curious combination of Tom Elliott and Jeff Dudgeon) to establish the sort of propaganda traction they got with the Maze.
And the Orange Order’s decision to support Gibson’s participation is a very clear signal of their recognition that it’s still the DUP, rather than the smaller unionist parties, which has the muscle to get things done.
The PUP also has some big choices to make in the next few months.
The announcement that they will be contesting the 2014 Euro elections (first time since 1999, when David Ervine got 3.3 per cent), the 2015 general election (first time since 2001) as well as the 2014 council and 2016 Assembly elections means that they have to give more thought to a credible socio/economic manifesto and devote less time to on-the-street protests.
The protests may result in airtime, but they’re unlikely to deliver enough votes to make a difference anywhere. Yet if the party adopts a quieter approach to politics it may find that it gets absorbed in the very large shadow cast by the DUP. Either way, it will have its work cut out to make itself relevant in what is an increasingly large pro-Union field.
The key issue for the PUP/TUV/UUP/UKIP/NI21 is whether any real damage has been done to the DUP by the Maze U-turn, the Spotlight programme on Red Sky, the ‘nutters’ comment from Jimmy Spratt, the nature of their relationship with Sinn Fein and the will-he-won’t-he-go question still hovering over Peter Robinson. An opinion poll next week – a follow-on from a poll earlier in the year – should provide some indication of whether much is happening in the undergrowth.
At this point, a few months from the Euro election, the DUP needs assurance that it hasn’t taken a major hit; and the others, particularly the UUP, need evidence that there is a statistically significant shift in their favour.
Meanwhile, Richard Haass will be meeting Robinson and McGuinness in New York on Wednesday and then flying to Belfast over the weekend. I still think he was a mug for accepting the invitation in the first place and the list of questions he has submitted to the participating parties suggests that he isn’t expecting much progress anyway. I mean, what’s the point of asking, ‘what are the most important issues to be addressed in the context of parades and how well does the current system do in addressing them?’ He wouldn’t be coming over in the first place if the ‘current system’ was addressing the issues!
And boy, is he going to have fun drumming his fingers on the table while the parties deal with the ‘in your view what does dealing with the past entail and how essential is it at this time’ question. Didn’t someone brief him about the hoo-ha over a ‘shrine’ at the Maze? Didn’t someone tell him that since these questions have been unanswered and unresolved for almost 20 years it might have been better to begin his process with a series of easier questions: questions which might have been capable of producing consensus?
It just looks to me as if he has gone out of his way to hone in on the fault lines between the parties. In other words, it’s a belligerent, in-your-face approach.
That said, it fits in with the hawkishness he tends to adopt on ‘foreign’ affairs: and, never forget, he does regard Northern Ireland as a ‘foreign’ affair.
In Syria, for example, he argues that ‘a limited strike would constitute a war of choice, not necessity… but, given strategic and political stakes, it would be warranted’. Also, he further argues that the ‘US needs to arm more moderate elements of Syria opposition, first to oust regime, then to prevail over radicals’.
I wonder whom he regards as the radical and moderate elements in Northern Ireland? It’s a question worth asking and worth knowing the answer to, because his answers (and yes, I know he’ll keep them private) will shape the recommendations he makes sometime in December.
Haass is a man who takes sides in his worldview and a man who takes sides will be keen to broker and promote a deal which fits in with his overview.
Can a normally soaring hawk-like Haass help our local parties? That depends on whether or not he is capable of adopting a more nuanced, dove-like approach between now and December. It depends if he has already picked a side and a favoured solution.
If truth be told, it’ll be more interesting observing him than the local party leaders: but I’m not anticipating a breakthrough.