Sam McBride: Shambolic DUP talks tactics dismay key figures – and weaken the leader

DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds during a press conference in Westminster, London.
DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds during a press conference in Westminster, London.

Why did the DUP negotiate to within sight of a deal which was proposing something for which the party’s members – let alone its supporters – had not been prepared, and then quickly collapse the entire talks process?

Even after some thought, it is a mystifying scenario from a party which has built its reputation on the sort of shrewd transactional politics which peaked in last year’s £1 billion deal to keep the Tories in power.

Unquestionably, the fallout from the events of the last fortnight leaves DUP leader Arlene Foster weaker and her party in a position which is arguably worse than at any time prior to last year’s general election.

Over recent months – and even in the weeks prior to the draft deal with Sinn Féin – senior party figures, including those close to Mrs Foster, have been clear in private that the party’s base was firmly against compromise with Sinn Féin, particularly on the issue of an Irish language act.

That knowledge meant that it was unsurprising that the party did little to make the argument to their supporters that compromise was in their long term interest, perhaps by arguing that direct rule was an uncertain future for unionism with the certainty of some role, however vague, for Dublin and the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn, a long-standing friend of Irish republicanism, entering Downing Street.

The party could also have argued pragmatically – although it would have been an abandonment of the years of ‘curry my yoghurt’ or ‘leprechaun language’ insults about Irish – that the loss of unionism’s Stormont majority and the growing Catholic population meant that for the Union to survive they will have to make Northern Ireland a comfortable place for cultural nationalists.

But none of that happened, and the message which the public heard from DUP politician after DUP politician was that they would not be conceding ground on the Irish language issue.

Against that backdrop, the DUP seemed to many of its elected members as well as to the public to be largely going through the motions, while Sinn Féin – facing a similarly stern message from its electorate not to roll over to the DUP – gave no hint of any sudden willingness to take political pain in order to restore Stormont.

The retirement of Gerry Adams seems to have prompted a change of focus in Sinn Féin, which persuaded the DUP negotiators that the incoming leader was more keen to secure an agreement.

Somehow, the party’s negotiators appear to have entered deep into negotiations about the nature of Irish language legislation in the apparent belief that because it would not be called an Irish language act they could evade accusations of a U-turn just a year after Mrs Foster vowed: “I will never accede to an Irish language act”.

Seven days before the talks collapsed, someone – and many people believe that it was a senior DUP figure – briefed the Belfast Telegraph that a deal was potentially “imminent”, with a “senior talks source” saying that “the bones of a deal are definitely there”.

Others in the DUP viewed that as political suicide. Sources indicate that amid a ferocious backlash the party officers made clear to the negotiators that the emerging deal was unsellable.

Two days later, and after initially saying on the day of the party officer meeting that there was “very good progress and we will keep at it and continue to work on that progress”, Mrs Foster walked away from the talks.

One experienced political figure who was involved in the campaign against a peace centre at the Maze prison site – which led to Peter Robinson having to perform a major U-turn after a grassroots revolt in 2013 – said that the rural unionist response to the rumours of what was in the deal had been “like the Maze but more intense”.

He said that the worshipful masters of several Orange lodges were using text messages to organise their members to lobby the DUP and that DUP councillors’ phones had been “red hot”.

One individual high up in the DUP suggested that some of the party’s negotiators may have got ahead of themselves in what they were discussing and said that the party would not contemplate significant tracts of what was in the final draft agreement – and not just the sections in square brackets.

Significantly, despite the increasing autonomy and power of the DUP’s MPs, the opposition to what was proposed extends across MLAs – although one DUP member said that some of the MLAs are “desperate” to save their jobs, as a pay cut looms – and to figures who are not seen as hardliners.

The party leadership apparently being rumbled on a compromise and immediately rowing back would seem to indicate two things: The current DUP leader is far weaker than her predecessors in being able to lead, rather than be led by, her party; and even if a compromise is struck in months to come, the increasingly tribalised mood in Northern Ireland means it will come under serious pressure from sections of the public.

For the DUP, this has been strategically disastrous.

The party had been in a position where Sinn Féin had been the party that pulled down devolution and then walked away from the talks last November, saying that it saw no point in talks for talks’ sake. Sinn Féin returned to the talks table last month but was clear that it was a time-bound process, initially putting that period at about two weeks.

Some senior DUP figures expected the party to hold to its earlier line from the talks, leading to Sinn Féin again leaving the process, something which would have led new leader Mary Lou McDonald, not Mrs Foster, facing a majority of the awkward questions.

Now, it is the DUP which is refusing to talk, a decision which revives stereotypes of unionism as intransigent and which weakens the party’s argument that it is the most serious about restoring Stormont.

There is dismay across swathes of the DUP that the party’s mismanagement of the talks process has demolished a strategy which they believed had been working and putting pressure on Sinn Féin.

The very fact that the DUP walked out undermines the party’s denial that grassroots anger at major concessions forced it into a sudden move to collapse the entire process to prove that it was not about to agree to an Irish language act.

If the party was not even contemplating such legislation, as Mrs Foster claimed this week, why not stay and keep to their line, given that Sinn Féin was likely to itself again leave the talks, as happened last year?

It is difficult to see the party’s move as anything other than panicked desperation to put the ultimate distance between them and what was on the table.

The leaking of the draft deal is not without problems for Sinn Féin, which is shown to have compromised on some of its demands, most notably on same-sex marriage and on Mrs Foster returning as First Minister.

The document suggests a party fairly relaxed about returning to something very close to the status quo in Stormont.

But while Sinn Féin’s new leader is basking in a honeymoon, for the DUP this has prompted some members to again begin quietly talking about the judgement of their leader.