No matter what happens this week, there is no escaping our nightmare
When it was first known that the DUP and Conservatives were looking at the possibility of a deal, I said that it would take between two and three weeks to get it together: '˜partly because the DUP needed something that would outlast May; partly because they didn't want to get blamed for any unpopular stuff further down the line; partly because they wanted something solid and easy to deliver in Northern Ireland (particularly if there was another Assembly election in October); and partly because they didn't want to do anything which would drive Sinn Fein out of the Assembly'.
And the other problem, of course, is that they are cutting a deal with Sinn Fein at the same time: and with Sinn Fein not expecting the DUP to have emerged as kingmakers, it meant that they would be more cautious and probably more reluctant to accommodate Foster in the absence of something very substantial for them to sell to their grassroots.
Yet, sometime over the next few days, the DUP will have to sign off on both deals. The other local parties won’t agree to anything here until they know what’s happening with the May deal. They certainly don’t want to find themselves mere bit players as DUP ministers dole out huge sums of money in the departments they would control in the new Executive. It’s possible – indeed, it’s likely –that the Conservatives will also be pressing the DUP to reboot the Executive before they agree to new funding from the Treasury; and it’s also a safe bet that Sinn Fein will agree to nothing until they are satisfied that ‘government neutrality’ has not been compromised.
Actually, I’m genuinely surprised that Sinn Fein set so much store in the importance of that ‘neutrality’. British governments, from the late 1960s onwards, have done very little which could be construed as unduly favourable to unionists. The modern version of the ‘constitutional guarantee’ was framed in late 1972: Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom for so long as a majority wish it; but there is no requirement or even expectation that a British government would champion or promote the pro-Union case.
Whatever else Foster cuts with May it isn’t going to include a clause that the Conservatives will stand foursquare with the DUP when it comes to taking a clear stand on the Union. May does not want Sinn Fein abandoning the Assembly and she certainly doesn’t want direct rule on top of everything else she has to deal with at the moment.
Anyway, you just have to read the reaction of unionists to so many government policies and initiatives from the late 1960s to realise that they’ve been mostly negative. At the same time, though, those governments have maintained channels of communication with the IRA (often through Sinn Fein); done almost everything required to manoeuvre republicans into negotiation; concluded a series of side deals and ‘understandings’; funded them through office costs at Westminster; and U-turned on one set-in-stone commitment after another since the mid-1990s. To be honest, some unionists would regard ‘neutrality’ as a step forward!
The other thing I don’t understand is why Sinn Fein thinks that the DUP should adopt – or be forced to adopt – an abstentionist policy when it comes to a deal with the Conservatives. Are we really expected to believe that if, following an election in the South, Sinn Fein were invited to enter a coalition government, they would turn it down? Or, that they would enter it, but not use their position to drive their own policy on Northern Ireland? They know the answer to those questions: and knowing those answers they will be fully aware of how thoroughly hypocritical they are re the DUP and Conservatives.
So, what happens if we don’t get a deal here on June 29? Very little, I suspect. James Brokenshire has talked about direct rule, but he clearly doesn’t mean it in the sense of shutting the Assembly, stopping salaries, depriving MLAs of their titles and closing constituency offices. Direct rule should mean that power returns to Westminster, to be exercised by the NIO; but that won’t apply here. No British government is going to risk the collapse of the peace/political process – particularly against the background of Brexit. They’re not going to risk the crashing of the institutions, a lengthy vacuum and a return to the drawing board at some unspecified point. Which means that if there isn’t a deal there will be continuing suspension and vague promises of a new deadline in the autumn. In other words, the façade and farce will carry on.
To be honest, I don’t think it would matter all that much if the institutions collapsed. The DUP and Sinn Fein are never going to agree on the ‘big ticket’ stuff like legacy, culture, integration etc; so one new crisis will follow another. There’s never going to be consensus on an agreed future. Unionism and republicanism are more polarised than ever. Departments will continue to be run as silos. There’s never going to be enough money, let alone a coherent strategy, to solve our economic problems. The two key parties will still differ on health, education, housing and infrastructure. Accountability is a joke. There’ll still be no real choice at elections.
But since neither the British nor Irish governments want to take sole responsibility for the problem, there’ll be no direct rule and the local parties will be pampered and ‘encouraged’ to give it ‘just one more chance’. We’ve no idea how to govern ourselves and no one else wants to govern us. Sadly, I see no escape from this nightmare.