There ain't no sanity clause in the new deal

ANYONE can pick holes in the Hillsborough Agreement and see where the seams could be unpicked by someone determined to do so. However this is real life, not a game, and there will be no rewards for anyone who strains things to breaking point.

If Stormont collapses the leadership of Sinn Fein and the DUP will be discredited for promoting a strategy they were unable to implement. Their fate is one thing, but in constitutional terms the major damage will be inflicted on the union between Northern Ireland and Britain.

If, even after years of hand holding, sweet talk and bribery by the British, Irish and US governments Northern Ireland cannot govern itself then it will be seen to have failed as a state. I don't think it will mean a united Ireland, neither side of the border could afford that, but it will make that option more thinkable.

In the short term any British government, even one led by the Tories, is bound to conclude that the DUP, Sinn Fein and the other local parties are not reliable partners in administering Northern Ireland or building long term stability. The only reliable partner will be the Irish government.

Formal joint authority is unlikely. The British will not fund something they don't control. If things go pear-shaped it will also be British troops who carry the can. Unless Dublin steps up to the plate on issues like finance and security it won't get an equal say in how we are run.

What we can expect, if Stormont self destructs, is more "jointery" short of joint authority. That would involve a formal Irish role in the representation of nationalist interests and routine cross border consultation on all major decisions. It will be, as one diplomat told me last year, like the "Anglo Irish Agreement on acid". The DUP, who trumpeted their good relations with Fianna Fail, would be in no position to complain after they had failed to provide stable government themselves.

Peter Robinson's talk of "a clever device" which he can deploy if he isn't satisfied with Sinn Fein's behaviour must be seen in this context. People have compared it with the "cunning plans" of Baldrick, Tony Robinson's character in Blackadder but it reminds me more of an exchange in the Marx Brothers movie A Night at the Opera. Groucho insists that the contract he is signing has a "sanity clause" but Chico replies "you can't fool me, there ain't no sanity clause".

Whatever emerges in the coming days there is no Santa Claus capable of rescuing the DUP and Sinn Fein from the consequences of failure. They are together on a high wire without a safety net, so if one messes about, both will come tumbling down.

It is the same for the smaller parties. They may not have been consulted properly and their support is needed, so they have leverage. But they must use it judiciously.

Margaret Ritchie made a good start as SDLP leader when she stepped away from her earlier threat to pull out of government if her party did not get an extra ministry out of the devolution of justice. They are entitled to it under d'Hondt but attempting to pull things down on the issues of political jobs would be very badly received. Most people feel there are too many ministries and too many snouts in the trough, not too few. Bringing the house down over the spoils of office, however good a case you have in theory, would be disastrous in terms of practical politics.

Besides, Alliance has a sort of claim to a ministry. If Dr Kieran Deeney, the hospitals candidate, and Brian Wilson, the Green MLA, with whom they operate as a centrist block in the Assembly, were added to their representation then they would get the next pick of a ministry under d’Hondt.

Everyone’s task in the next few days is to build confidence and make things work. The SDLP and UUP could demand changes in the efficiency of the Assembly and a formal role, with entrenched rights, for parties who voluntarily go into opposition. If they didn’t get that then they might have a case which the public would accept for pulling out of the administration.

The British and Irish governments also have a major contribution to make that would build confidence but would not cost them a penny. Now that the de Chastelain decommissioning body has completed its mandate the two governments have the power to publish an inventory of paramilitary weapons put beyond use. They should do so as fully and transparently as possible.

The cold, hard facts of decommissioning would let the public know how far we have come and how much is at stake.