Analysis: After days of drift, evidence of a firmer hand on the DUP tiller

First Minister Peter Robinson with Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt
First Minister Peter Robinson with Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt

The DUP’s response to the Kevin McGuigan murder has metamorphosed several times — and it may do so again over coming days.

On August 20, Peter Robinson said that the DUP would be tabling a motion to exclude Sinn Fein from the Executive and asking the Secretary of State “to intervene in circumstances where the evidence points to the IRA being involved”.

Whether through confusion or otherwise, the proposal was odd as Sinn Fein has a veto over any exclusion motion, meaning that it would have led to no action.

Three days later, Mike Nesbitt threw the DUP into a quandary by announcing a much simpler and more direct response — quitting the Executive.

Last Monday, the DUP responded by attempting to have the Assembly’s summer recess extended, which failed, and then attempted to get David Cameron to suspend Stormont, which also failed.

A week later — and 18 days after the PSNI linked the IRA to murder — Mr Robinson announced the DUP’s latest tactic: an indefinite halt to all but the most important Executive meetings, an open-ended boycott of north-south meetings and a threat that the DUP will follow the UUP out of the Executive “as a last resort”.

The DUP response to the McGuigan murder has, by the party’s usually professional standards, been fairly chaotic. But yesterday’s statement indicated that a firmer hand is being put on the situation after what has seemed to be days of drift.

It appears that the party’s hand has been forced by two developments — the UUP’s withdrawal from the Executive, and the growing rumours that there is more evidence to emerge about IRA involvement in serious criminal activity.

Rather than drift along with the UUP repeatedly landing blows from its right flank — as happened during two years where the DUP championed the Maze peace centre, that position became untenable within grass roots unionism and led to a huge U-turn — Mr Robinson yesterday seemed to be taking his party down a road which could lead to a rapid collapse of Stormont and a bitter electoral battle within unionism.

Mr Robinson also said that the DUP would not return to the current Stormont but would insist on fundamental changes to the Assembly and Executive structures — presumably including significant Opposition structures and changes to petitions of concern — if this Stormont collapses and a snap election is held.

The DUP has long supported serious reform of Stormont but has been much more muted than other unionists — such as Jim Allister and John McCallister — in doing anything about anomalies such as the lack of an Opposition or the proliferation of special advisers.

Entering an election seeking a mandate for radical changes to Stormont would require an abandonment of past rhetoric that the Executive is largely working well, but a ‘negative’ media is refusing to report the glad tidings.

But such a platform could be very popular with an electorate which if it does not hear that sort of message from the DUP may be tempted to turn to the TUV or the UUP.