There had been bad times in between, but the feeling was that every crisis could be overcome. The DUP and Sinn Fein didn’t like, let alone respect each other, yet both knew that their survival was built on mutual dependence.
But 2015 had become dangerously bad for both parties. The Stormont House Agreement, agreed in 2014, had been put on ice when Sinn Fein backed away from the welfare package; a report, commissioned after two murders, had indicated that the IRA Army Council still existed and retained influence over Sinn Fein’s leadership, both parties had concerns about increased activity from dissident republicans and what looked like new electoral momentum for Mike Nesbitt, the UUP withdrew from the Executive in August, Peter Robinson was coming under enormous pressure over NAMA revelations, DUP ministers had adopted a hokey-cokey strategy to Executive membership, a collapse of the Assembly seemed a distinct possibility and the DUP stopped denying persistent rumours that Robinson’s leadership had reached the ‘departure gate’ stage.
On November 17, 2015, Robinson and McGuinness did something quite extraordinary: they took joint responsibility for A Fresh Start: “We reached agreement on this framework fully aware of the many areas of disagreement and mistrust that have bedevilled progress in embedding peace and reconciliation. Confidence has to be built if we are fully to overcome the legacy of our tragic past. The essence of this Agreement, the vision which must inspire our leadership, is our shared belief that the civic values of respect, mutuality, fairness and justice must take precedence over those narrow values that too often manifest in division. Our pledge is that together we will use the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to lead by example, and through co-operation and common purpose, to ensure that the spirit, vision and promise of the document is fulfilled.”
What it was, of course, as I noted at the time, was a pre-election non-aggression pact. A Fresh Start was actually a fresh start for the DUP/Sinn Fein relationship and a way of glossing over all too obvious difficulties. More important, it allowed them to present the new deal as something similar to a joint manifesto: in other words, for everything else that still divided them (not least the ‘vote DUP to stop a SF First Minister’) they still had a joint vision which united them. We may never know for sure how much they believed the hype upon which it was built; but they both knew that they either stood together or fell together.
The body language, as well as the studio and interview language, changed from that point. OK, they were never going to be bosom buddies, but they were now prepared to make life a little bit easier for each other. That wouldn’t stop Gregory Campbell and Sammy Wilson from ‘putting the boot in’ now and again, but the leadership of both parties turned a blind eye and bit their tongues. The replacement of Robinson by Foster, rather than Dodds, made life a little bit easier for Sinn Fein - and much more difficult for the UUP: and the fact that she rowed backed very quickly from the ‘rogue ministers’ boo-boo ensured that harmony continued. Put bluntly, they both knew they were heading for comfortable victories in the Assembly election so both prepared early for a soft landing.
But the real making of the new relationship was the decision by the UUP and SDLP to opt for Opposition. And it also helped, as a very senior DUP source told me at the time, that “Alliance overplayed their hand over Justice and assumed we had no other options,”- because it meant that the new Executive was a DUP/SF one, along with the independent Claire Sugden. Circumstance forced them to work together which, in turn, forced them to consolidate the non-aggression pact and start promoting joint success. Hence the appointment of David Gordon as their official ‘minder.’
Whether this rather bizarre pas-de-deux can continue is anybody’s guess. It has already survived the first stages of the Brexit result, although we’re still nowhere close to understanding what the long-term impact of the eventual exit deal will be. They’ve also been helped by the fact that the Opposition has yet to get its act together. The quietest marching season for years certainly improved the mood, as did the closing of Camp Twaddell. The blueprint for getting rid of paramilitarism turned out to be something of a damp squib; so much so that the Executive has been asked for more detail. There are decisions to be made in economics and health particularly. Legacy issues remain mostly in limbo and it’s a safe bet that the separate bodies dealing with flags, identity, culture and tradition; and the one on parades, will opt for soft words rather than hard calls.
Just a year ago the survival of the Assembly was a valid question. The DUP and Sinn Fein came up with a solution which suits their own political/electoral interests. But what their solution means in terms of a new-era Northern Ireland remains an equally valid question.