28 April 2006

Delusions of power-sharing

Guardian

Unionists are not about to kiss and make up with Sinn Féin, argues Henry McDonald

Friday April 28, 2006

Is the Democratic Unionist Party on the verge of doing a "David Trimble" and enter a power-sharing arrangement with their historic enemies in Sinn Féin?

Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, and some more gullible sections of the Irish media seem to think so. Perhaps their confidence that the DUP is about to perform a Trimbleite 360-degree turn is bolstered by two events this week.

The first was the unprecedented visit to an Anglo-Irish joint parliamentary body, which was sitting in Killarney in the deep south of the Irish Republic.

At this gathering and at a previous speech in New York before Easter, DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson appeared to indicate the party was shifting ground.

Yes, the DUP wanted powersharing, Mr Robinson told his two diverse audiences, but only when it could be sure that the republican movement had ended all illegal activities, he added.

On Wednesday, the body established to oversee the IRA and loyalist ceasefires, the International Monitoring Commission, delivered its most positive report to date.

It found that the IRA was distancing itself further from all forms of paramilitary activity. However, the IMC report was not the "clean bill of health" some news organisations and the two governments claimed it was.

The committee found that IRA units still held on to arms even though the provisionals, according to General de Chastelain and two Irish clergymen, were meant to have decommissioned their entire arsenal last summer.

But in the round, as they say up in Stormont, there was now next to no excuse for the DUP not to share with Sinn Féin.

All of this positive spin ignores two critical factors that in reality will prevent the DUP entering government with Sinn Féin before Tony Blair's final, final, absolutely final deadline at the end of November.

The first is the unionist electorate, which replaced David Trimble with the Reverend Ian Paisley as top dog in unionism last year.

Mr Robinson, the DUP's key strategist, has stated that between now and the November deadline, his party will hold wide-ranging consultations with the unionist community in Northern Ireland.

In essence, the DUP will hold a series of local opinion polls to gauge support for a possible deal with Sinn Féin and others. This process will include meetings with church groups, local community associations, cross-sections of voters in key constituencies and so on.

The answer they are likely to receive is a resounding no.

Even if the next IMC report happens to be even more positive and if the issue of who killed IRA man turned British spy Denis Donaldson does not exercise this electorate, the prospect of a Sinn Féin minister (possibly an ex-IRA prisoner/leader) taking charge of policing or justice in Northern Ireland will horrify the average unionist voter.

Devolving policing or justice powers - a key republican precondition for ultimately supporting the Police Service of Northern Ireland - to a republican minister will be a deal breaker.

The second factor in holding back the dealmakers within the DUP is the political situation on the other side of the Irish Sea.

The slow, seemingly inexorable disintegration of Tony Blair's premiership is being watched carefully not only by Mr Robinson but other DUP luminaries including the Cambridge-educated North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds and the party's hard-line MEP, Jim Allister.

They regard Tony Blair as having given, rightly or wrongly, too many concessions over the years to republicans to buy off the IRA and its armed campaign.

From their viewpoint they owe Mr Blair nothing and would happy to see him dispatched from Downing Street unable to wrap himself up in the glory of having achieved a real, final settlement in Northern Ireland. They are "waiting for Gordo".

Blair's woeful Black Wednesday is the DUP's opportunity, or at least their space to consult, hesitate and hold on until someone else occupies Number Ten, whether that be Gordon Brown or someone else.

· Henry McDonald is Ireland Editor of The Observer

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