DUP muddling mirrors state of unionist community


Unionists like to depict Sinn Féin as wreckers, but their ambivalence to powersharing is destroying the system, writes FIONNUALA O CONNOR

WATCHING AS evidence emerges of disarray inside the largest unionist party, the DUP, the first question is how Peter Robinson misread the situation so badly. He inherited from Ian Paisley not just because there was no more impressive rival, but because the party thought him skilful and smart. The strains in his private life might help explain how a smart man mishandled a crisis that need not have erupted. The causes go deeper.

Why did the DUP leader bring proposals to his 36 MLAs that he knew at least a third of would reject? The length of the meeting alone made clear that the argument had to be fought from a basic level. The votes against demonstrated that the number of opponents increased rather than decreased after Robinson made his case.

But the divide in the DUP is no mystery. It mirrors the state of the unionist community. Any number of recent phone-ins and vox pops have found embarrassment at the “clowns” and wasters in Stormont, who ought to be “turfed out, the lot of them”. Much of that sentiment is unionist, lashing out at politics in general because it cannot bear to be specific. The implication is that republicans and nationalists have helped endanger Stormont. The greatest embarrassment for unionists is that only Sinn Féin’s forbearance with the DUP’s flustering has kept the Assembly in being.

The DUP never liked the powersharing arrangement. Their followers made up the 50 per cent of unionism which voted against it in 1998. But Paisley and his party wanted to stay in the game: they adopted the Robinsonian wheeze of taking ministries but not sitting in the Executive. Gradually, Ulster Unionism’s outright “antis” drifted over. And the DUP came to represent 60 per cent of unionist opinion, became the biggest party and, still unreconciled, inherited a system it still opposed.

Their solution was to inhabit it and sabotage it at the same time. Paisley and then Robinson took office as first minister but pretended it was not a joint office. The illogical and silly title of “deputy first minister” was written into the 1998 negotiations to help unionists sell the deal as respectful of their majority status.

It turned out that Protestant/unionist opinion was no keener on sharing power with the moderate SDLP than they have been about sharing office with Martin McGuinness, former leader of the IRA. Few unionist politicians have been able to bring themselves to use the word “powersharing”. The three first ministers to date have behaved as if they were prime ministers.

But the attempts to frustrate Sinn Féin and go slow on powersharing have helped to destroy the system, and encouraged the Traditional Unionist Voice of Jim Allister – who holds with the old style of “Sinn Féin/IRA” and has sounded very happy recently. The Allister vote is expected to increase in any new assembly.

Part of the DUP’s muddle is clearly panic at the thought of what a snap Assembly election may bring. Unionists have been scrambling to construct pacts to ward off Sinn Féin’s emergence as the biggest party, and the likely nomination of McGuinness as first minister. A Belfast Telegraph poll of unionist MLAs this week showed a widely held belief that not only must McGuinness be blocked but that the first minister must be unionist – since unionists are the majority.

Now the DUP is faced with a decision. It isn’t enviable. Do they say they will not and cannot work with Sinn Féin because of their past as the IRA’s political wing? Which amounts to admitting they have been fibbing to themselves and their supporters this past few years. Or do they say yes, they will work the arrangement, because they believe the IRA has gone out of existence, Sinn Féin has signed up to support the police, and it represents the majority of nationalists? This would mean finally confronting the ambivalence that runs through the heart of their community.

It was easy to make powersharing look

bad. They just refused to be civil to their supposed partners, and kept telling their supporters no partnership existed. To prove it, they blocked everything their opposite numbers wanted most.

But unionists like to depict Sinn Féin as wreckers. It has been a trial to hear Sinn Féin spokesmen hanging on to their patience. Martin McGuinness has been offensively polite, disgustingly amiable, beginning with those months of biting his lip while Paisley belittled him, smilingly, as “the deputy”. If unionists stay at sixes and sevens, McGuinness might well be in line to be first minister – when, of course, he would have precisely the power that he has now.