Friday, 11 July 2008

DUP and SF continue haggling

To the complete indifference of the overwhelming majority of the population, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin continue to disagree over a number of key issues, most notably the timetable for the devolution of policing and justice. Last week it was reported that Peter Robinson was amenable to a 12 month timetable. This week it is reported that Sinn Féin are insisting it is done by the Autumn (perhaps with the IRA Army Council standing down over the summer?).

Meanwhile, the DUP are eager to end the uncertainty around academic selection and Sinn Féin are keen to get an Irish Language Act. Sinn Féin and the DUP are probably both keen to postpone water charging.

Interestingly, in response to a question from the Conservative Shadow Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, the government have signalled that, at present, they intend to retain the proceeds of all sell offs of surplus Army bases. It might be that the government are still trying to use this as a method of encouraging the parties to reach agreement. (Then again this might be all agreed between the DUP and Labour as part of their deal on the 42 day vote and this is simply a smokescreen that can be dispensed with at a more appropriate time.)

The DUP appear to be in the stronger position. While they would like to end the uncertainty over academic selection, they know selection will continue, with the ‘rebel’ grammars conducting their own tests. The DUP, almost certainly have a commitment for £200million to delay water charging but ironically it is Sinn Féin who are probably more vulnerable on this issue than the other parties. They were most strident in their criticism of water charging at election time and it would be their Minister, Conor Murphy, who would have to introduce the tax. The SDLP have probably already drafted their leaflets about the ‘Murphy Tax’.

Sinn Féin need to steady their supporters by delivering policing and justice and an Irish Language Act but appear only to have the disbandment of the Army Council to bring to the negotiating table.

This may explain why Sinn Féin have apparently started to block the Executive from making any decisions and to again brief certain journalists about the possibility that the entire Executive could collapse. Even a decision on the replacement policy for Planning Policy Statement 14 – the controversial policy on restricting building in the countryside – has now been caught up in the delaying tactics.

It simply does not seem credible that Sinn Féin would collapse the institutions. Such a course of action would be a gift to Republican dissidents in the run up to the European election. It would be an admission of failure by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. In addition, the party would not get a lot of sympathy from the UK, Irish or US administrations. The governments may feel that the DUP should commit to devolving policing and justice but would point out that the IRA delayed decommissioning for many years. Also, at the end of the day, the Sinn Féin leadership signed up to the St Andrews Agreement, which contained a suggested date not a deadline for transferring policing and justice powers to the Assembly.

The collapsing of the institutions would not reflect well on Gordon Brown and any new Direct Rule regime might simply conduct a ‘holding exercise’. They would be unlikely to even introduce an Irish Language Act in such a scenario let alone introduce joint British/Irish control of policing and justice

General Election sooner rather than later?

The Glasgow East by election is one of those unforeseen ‘events’ that might just lead to things going wrong for Gordon Brown. Should Labour lose their third safest seat in Scotland – and given the fiasco about finding someone willing to fight the seat and the resignation of Labour’s leader in Scotland, this is a distinct possibility - Labour MPs might just decide they need a new leader to save themselves from electoral meltdown. A new Labour leader, who like Brown would have no personal mandate to be Prime Minster, might decide that the Labour party’s best chance would be to combine the European elections with a General Election – in the hope that the Conservatives differences to Europe emerge as a major issue.

This could mean a Conservative government within the year. Undoubtedly, Sinn Féin, in particular, will have to bear this in mind when considering its future tactics.

The myth of ‘unionist unity’

The decision to call a by election in Fermanagh following the death of a DUP councillor, revealed that recent talk about ‘unionist unity’ is probably largely just talk. The Council could have agreed to co-opt a replacement but the Ulster Unionists blocked that possibility. Any study of unionist political history and opinion shows the tremendous difficulty in uniting the ‘ethnic mobilisation’ element of unionism – which is often nakedly sectarian - with the broad more cosmopolitan or ‘civic’ unionism that focus on the diversity and tolerance and the wider benefits of the UK.

Indeed many would increasingly question the desirability of promoting ‘unionist unity’ as the sectarian element and ‘baggage’ of the main unionist parties means that turnout amongst pro Union voters continues to decline. While there is undoubtedly a market for one ‘Protestant’ unionist party, the development of a party that promotes a broader agenda might actually attract more voters to the polls .

Peter Robinson to meet loyalist paramilitaries

The First Minister, Peter Robinson, has agreed to meet representatives of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The UVF which was closely allied with the Progressive Unionists (who have one Assembly Member, Dawn Purvis) was responsible for a large number of terrorist attacks throughout the Troubles. By failing to decommission and maintaining an ambiguous stance on the Belfast Agreement, the UVF have largely eroded what little political bargaining power they had.

Cowen again plays down SDLP/Fianna Fail merger speculation

The Taoiseach and Leader of Fianna Fail, Brian Cowen, moved recently to dampen speculation about the party organising in Northern Ireland. This week further cold water was poured on the idea by Fianna Fail. Most commentators have implied that FF were going off the idea but the truth is that the firmer the proposal became, the more rank and file SDLP members and voters became annoyed – and voiced their annoyance internally.