Nigel Dodds: Empey’s comments suggest that the UUP would do anything to restore Stormont

DUP deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, right, as party leader Arlene Foster speaks at the launch of the party's Assembly election campaign launch. DUP chair Lord Morrow is left at Brownlow House.

Photo: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

DUP deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, right, as party leader Arlene Foster speaks at the launch of the party's Assembly election campaign launch. DUP chair Lord Morrow is left at Brownlow House. Photo: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

If anyone had forgotten what it used to be like when the Ulster Unionist Party was the largest unionist party then the Sir Reg Empey’s News Letter article on Wednesday (February 8) served as a timely reminder

Rather than placing the blame for the election where it squarely lies, at Sinn Fein’s door, Sir Reg goes back to his old tactic of attacking the DUP.

Lord Empey at the  Ulster Unionist Party annual conference in Belfast in 2015. Picture credit � Matt Mackey - Presseye.com

Lord Empey at the Ulster Unionist Party annual conference in Belfast in 2015. Picture credit � Matt Mackey - Presseye.com

Space does not permit a point by point rebuttal of Sir Reg’s claims but perversely he criticises the same voluntary exit scheme that his party leader Mike Nesbitt paid fulsome tribute to the head of the civil service for having delivered.

Sir Reg’s main criticism of the DUP seems to have been to allow Gerry Adams to open up a whole new set of negotiations. How Sinn Fein could have been prevented from forcing an election is not obvious but this analysis is revealing about Sir Reg’s thinking.

Presumably the avoidance of a new set of negotiations was the reason why the Ulster Unionist Party were always prepared to appease and concede to the demands of Sinn Fein in the years after the Belfast Agreement.

That was back in the days when unionism emerged weakened from every set of negotiations led by the UUP. All of that has now changed. One of the reasons for frustration within Sinn Fein has been the fact that they have not been able to advance their republican agenda in negotiations with the DUP.

Reg Empey, right, in debate with Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein in a 2010 UTV election debate chaired by Jim Dougal left. 
Picture by Stephen Davison

Reg Empey, right, in debate with Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein in a 2010 UTV election debate chaired by Jim Dougal left. Picture by Stephen Davison

This present crisis is for once a consequence of the success of unionism and not of its failure. Back in Reg’s day it was unionists who threatened to bring down devolution when the UUP were not getting their own way. This was not a sign of success but of failure. So too is the stance adopted by Sinn Fein today.

2016 has come and gone without a united Ireland and most people believe that we are further away from it than ever. The republican agenda has been derailed and they have collapsed Stormont in an act of desperation.

Over the last ten years the DUP has stabilised unionism, turned the tide on concessions to republicans and left each negotiating process in a stronger position than we entered. This was never more clearly apparent than in the Fresh Start Agreement of November 2015.

The logic of Sir Reg’s argument is that the UUP would be prepared to pay any price to get back into Stormont. That is straight out of the old UUP playbook that did so much damage to unionism in the past. This is not a new UUP, instead it looks disturbingly familiar to the same old UUP that last May fell to its lowest ever share of the vote.

Whatever the unionist people think of how Stormont has operated they will not have the slightest doubt that the DUP are by far the best equipped to deal with Sinn Fein in any negotiations. We will work with others to see Stormont restored and the institutions functioning properly but we will not be prepared to pay any price demanded by republicans.

The reality is that the Ulster Unionist Party are not even fielding enough candidates to win the election but any success they may have can only come at the cost of weakening unionism’s hand in the talks which will inevitably follow the elections.

That would be the greatest boost possible for Gerry Adams, rewarding him for plunging Northern Ireland into the current crisis.

• Nigel Dodds is MP for North Belfast and DUP deputy leader

Reg Empey: Arlene Foster has gifted Gerry Adams the chance to re-open negotiations