Friday, 6 June 2008

The week that never was..

Anyone who pays too much attention to the media would have thought there was a political crisis developing during the last week as word spread that Sinn Fein was considering refusing to nominate Peter Robinson to the position of First Minister following Ian Paisley’s resignation. In reality it all turned out to be a false alarm but it allowed politicians and journalists to lapse back into the old days of endless speculation, perpetual crisis and talks about talks.

In the end Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness were nominated for First Minister and deputy First Minister with reasonably good humour all round. Sir Reg Empey, the UUP Leader, tried to rain on the parade by pointing out the ludicrous nature of the situation but probably struck the wrong note because while the public may well sympathise with this analysis the ‘man in the street’ probably wants continuity and stability before anything else – no matter how ludicrous.

The debate has raged all week about the advisability of Sinn Fein’s tactic. While they had grumbled in private they had not made public this unhappiness. They then let it be known through ‘SF sources’ they were unhappy and eventually the party confirmed that it was considering its position on the nomination process.

Some commentators such as Newton Emerson in the Irish News lambasted Sinn Fein, many others debated who had most to loss or gain from an election. Speculation was heaped on speculation.

Malachi O’Doherty in the Belfast Telegraph felt that while the tactic showed that Sinn Fein could not be taken for granted, he believed that an election would not be popular amongst SF voters beyond the ‘core’ or ‘base’ of ardent supporters. Senior UUP sources tended to concur that the tactic – threatening an election but not actually causing one would reassure many Sinn Fein supporters.

In truth it probably, ironically, reassured many DUP supporters of the correctness of their party’s position.

Both parties remain nervous – SF face losing their MEP in Dublin next year and Michelle Gildernew, the MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone, must be concerned about her position at the next General Election, given the level of discontent amongst Republicans in her constituency.
The DUP are concerned about the damage Jim Allister and the Traditional Unionist Voice could do to them in the European elections – ironically a constituency-based Assembly poll might have helped them stop Jim Allister’s progress. In next year’s European election, Northern Ireland is one constituency enabling Allister to put himself before the entire electorate in a way he couldn’t in an Assembly election.

Should the IRA Army Council disband prior to the European election – the reason Jim Allister gave for not backing power-sharing and resigning from the DUP – it is unclear whether he would run.

Part of the frantic coverage of events this week included the fact that Jeffrey Donaldson MP MLA had been appointed DUP Director of Elections. While the media focused on the possibility of Assembly elections it is also the case that if the DUP perform badly in next year’s European elections Jeffrey Donaldson may get the blame.

Talking to the current PM

The result of last weeks kerfuffle is not a secret deal for the Army Council to disband in the summer and policing and justice to be devolved in the Autumn – apparently there is no deal at all at present. If this is true there is a lot of talking to be done in the three hour meeting with Gordon Brown at Downing Street.
The list of things to be discussed is far from clear but is expected to include; policing and justice, education, the Maze Prison complex, the future of the Irish Language Act, paramilitaries (disbandment of), parades and the viability of the mandatory form of executive.
Whether Gordon’s mind will be focused or not is unclear – he has not shown much interest in Northern Ireland to date and is probably more concerned about next week’s vote on the 42 day detention of terrorist suspects. Were he to lose this vote his future in Downing Street would be very uncertain. He will undoubtedly be very aware that the DUP have 9 votes at Westminster. One wonders if he might ask Gerry Adams if he and his four fellow MPs are busy next week and whether he could give them a guided tour of the Palace of Westminster – including the voting lobbies - say late evening next Tuesday? Given the subject is the detention of terrorist suspects it is probably a bit much to ask.
Accepted wisdom seems to state that the UK Government will deliver an Irish Language Act via Westminster if Stormont does not.

DUP reshuffle

The new DUP Ministerial line up is expected to be as follows:
Nigel Dodds, Finance and Personnel
Arlene Foster, Enterprise, Trade and Investment
Sammy Wilson, Environment
Gregory Campbell, Culture, Arts and Leisure
Gregory Campbell will probably move quickly to kill off the Maze stadium idea. Arlene Foster will be delighted to escape the wrath of those opposed to the new rural planning policy (PPS 14) by moving from Environment. The new draft policy which has been expected for weeks if expected to remain unpopular in rural areas – not least in Fermanagh and South Tyrone where she is hoping to unseat Michelle Gildernew.
Will Edwin Poots emerge as the DUP’s European candidate? Ironically his former party political rival and fellow Lagan Valley MLA, Jeffrey Donaldson would be in charge of maximizing his electoral chances. The DUP need a big hitter to counter Jim Allister next June.

Sir Reg signals a desire to think outside the box

Ian Paisley mused about unionist unity to the papers last week and Peter Robinson publicly promoted the idea on the day of the UUP AGM. Sir Reg dismissed it and Danny Kennedy, Sammy Wilson and Gregory Campbell exchanged ill tempered press releases. Sir Reg followed up with a press release signaling that he has a vision for the future that is very different from Robinson’s.