Analysis: DUP seem to be making their bed – within the Executive

The end of devolved government could have serious repercussions for senior DUP figures like Arlene Foster
The end of devolved government could have serious repercussions for senior DUP figures like Arlene Foster

In purely political terms, Mike Nesbitt’s snap decision on Wednesday to quit the Stormont Executive in protest at continued IRA murder was a masterstroke – demonstrated by how it threw the DUP, who took four hours to find any response at all.

But since then, the UUP has struggled to explain why it has acted as it has done, perhaps indicating that the decision was reached hastily and with limited thought.

Even some of the UUP’s most senior figures have sounded hugely unclear about their decision.

That lack of sure-footedness is surprising, given that within unionism – and certainly within the UUP – the move has significant support.

The DUP was always going to attempt to stay in the Executive if it could do so. Peter Robinson’s strategy of at least two decades is built on devolved government, and even if it were not, the end of devolved government could well mean the end of the road for senior DUP figures such as himself, Arlene Foster and Simon Hamilton.

But in the immediate aftermath of Mr Nesbitt’s move, the DUP will have been assessing whether it was possible to even attempt to stay in the Executive. One party member, and by no means a hard liner, was derisive when I suggested that the party would try to ride it out, or at least stall for time.

It seems that the UUP’s struggles at explaining its decision have emboldened the DUP to go on the offensive against Mr Nesbitt.

While intra-unionist attacks are routine, this is significant because it makes it very difficult for the DUP to now follow the UUP out of the Executive.

Mauling Mike Nesbitt for a strategy of walking away from the Executive to pressure republicans will look confused and contradictory if the DUP decided to do just that a week or a fortnight from now.

Even more than the row over the peace centre at the Maze, this issue goes to the heart of unionism, given that the existence of an armed and murderous IRA would suggest that the peace process has been built on a lie.

With the Maze, Peter Robinson put enormous political capital into supporting the peace centre only to abandon it. He did that and survived, albeit weakened. He is unlikely to survive another bad political call of that magnitude.