Friday, 13 June 2008

The mother of all side deals?

It will be the not knowing the detail of the deal that really irks Sinn Féin.

Gordon Brown effectively hyped the 42 day detention vote into a vote of confidence in all but name. However, when it looked like he was facing defeat the Labour government folded and cut a deal with the DUP. There is hardly anyone who believes the protestations of DUP MPs and the Labour government that there is no deal.

No one outside the DUP leadership knows the detail of the deal and that may have implications for the political process in Northern Ireland. There is much speculation about the contents. Given that Gordon Brown was staring political death in the face, there can be no real limit to the possible extent of this deal.

There is much mention of £200m to avoid having to introduce water charging two months before the European elections and talk of as much as £1bn from the sale of former military sites being returned to the NI Executive. Talk too of a promise not to extend abortion to Northern Ireland and of a peerage for Ian Paisley.

But what of the policing and justice. Will we ever hear Shaun Woodward call for it to be devolved as soon as possible ever again? And if we do, will he mean it or will he be going through the motions? Will Labour push an Irish Language Act through Westminster? Guarantees of ‘non interference’ on these two issues were surely at the top of the DUP shopping list.

Sinn Féin may never know what was agreed to in this ‘side deal’ and this will only add to the frustration that voiced itself in their threat to bring down Stormont last week. Now, having made that threat, Sinn Féin find themselves with limited options. Using the tactic again without following through would lead to a ‘cry wolf’ scenario. Moreover there is no evidence that calling an election would undermine the DUP and even if it did this would only increase the possibility of devolution collapsing altogether. Does anyone believe that Gordon Brown would opt for Plan ‘B’ in such a scenario? He would more than likely simply put the whole thing in the political deep freeze – reintroducing direct rule and challenging the local parties to sort out their differences.

Ironically, Sinn Féin may actually benefit from the DUP vote of course, if the Brown government announces that, after consideration, it is to ‘financially alleviate’ the burden of the introduction of a water and sewerage element to rates bills in Northern Ireland. Both Sinn Féin and the DUP are not keen on going into the European elections less than two months after pushing up everyone’s rates bills.

The Conservative Party, meanwhile, is extremely unhappy. David Davis, who in the past might have been friendly with the DUP, has decided to make a personal crusade over the whole 42 day issue by resigning his seat at Westminster and fighting the subsequent by-election – which will probably be on 11 July. The by election is likely to cause further discomfort to the Conservative Party. This will only increase their irritation with the DUP.

The DUP Parliamentary group was apparently spilt down the middle – with half of them anxious not to offend Cameron and the Conservatives. Having made their choice, they might have maximised their short term influence at the expense of the medium and long term.
Some feel this shows how unionists can ‘maximise’ their ‘influence’ at Westminster by maximising the number of unionist MPs. Others might argue that it leads to unionists being distrusted and despised by both the main parties. Certainly the standing of unionist MPs (Lady Sylvia Hermon also supported the government) has properly never been lower in the Conservative Party.

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