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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

DUP at the top of its game

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Tomorrow's visit by Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, introduces an intriguing new dynamic into Northern Ireland politics – a pincer movement between Scottish nationalism, the DUP and Sinn Féin to extract more money and attention from Westminster.

Ian Paisley and Salmond are the pivotal figures, and started an innovative political courtship as soon as Salmond ousted Labour and was elected Scotland's first minister on May 16. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were sore at the reversal, and neither rang with the customary congratulations, attempting to put Salmond in the political deep freeze. Paisley and Martin McGuinness both saw the opportunity to make an ally in the battle for resources with Westminster and Whitehall. "Ian was singing my praises, and Martin McGuinness was singing his praises. It's a funny old world," Salmond enthused.

Paisley was equally effusive. "The point is that Salmond is a clever boy," he declared, adding that the Scotsman was his kind of nationalist because he favoured keeping the Queen as head of state. "He is a clever man and to do what he did in turning around politics in Scotland is really a miracle."

In late April and early May, London had attempted to play Holyrood and Stormont off against each other and to set Salmond and Paisley at each other's throats in the battle for resources.

Government sources briefed journalists and politicians that Northern Ireland couldn't be given the economic package it needed from Westminster because of Scotland. Salmond, it was argued, would ask for the same. Therefore, delay was necessary until well after the Scottish elections. It might never be possible.

Paisley, who had threatened not to go into government without the package, was forced to back down. But now his advisers are focused on making Scotland an ally rather than a rival in negotiations with Westminster.

It's worked for Salmond, too. The Paisley link increased his leverage, creating another headache for the Labour administration. The alliance helped force London's hand, to the point where Gordon Brown telephoned Salmond on June 2. Salmond described it as "useful" but joked that the famously prudent chancellor had made it a reverse-charge call.

The game of playing one assembly off against another was over and now Paisley and Salmond are working on a united front, into which Wales may also be drawn, aimed at forcing the issues that concern them up the Westminster agenda.

It is typical of the cracking pace the DUP have set since entering office. The Scottish strategy parallels the extraordinarily good relations that Paisley's party has built with Fianna Fail and Bertie Ahern. The taoiseach seems to have received an electoral bounce from meeting Paisley at the site of the Battle of the Boyne. Ian Paisley Jnr was among the first to ring Ahern to congratulate him on winning the Irish general election.

In fact, the style of Fianna Fail can already be seen in both the DUP and the SNP: pragmatic political juggernaut emerges from an unpromising start on the wilder fringes to dominate the centre of politics with a mission to govern.

While the DUP has been on top of the detail and pulled off some remarkable strokes, Sinn Féin is struggling to find big issues to promote, despite impressive technical performances from ministers such as Catriona Ruane and Conor Murphy. The republicans seem at a loss as to what to do next following their setback in the southern election.

Totemic issues, such as the Irish Language Act, have foundered on DUP indifference and slipped down the agenda. Instead, Sinn Féin ministers have to bend their minds to working within the budgetary constraints set by Peter Robinson who, as finance minister, has established himself as ringmaster of the Stormont circus.

As one SDLP observer put it: "The republicans' advisers were good when they were horse trading about guns with the British. But the DUP have a staff of technocrats who are on top of the detail when they are in government."

There was an example of this last week when Robinson intervened to defend Michelle Gildernew, Sinn Féin's agriculture minister, from attacks by the Ulster Farmers' Union when she sold off land at the Crossnacreevy Agriculture Research Centre to pay for a scheme to update slurry tanks. "Selling off the family silver," her critics called it. Robinson, who had forced Gildernew's hand by refusing to fund the scheme, came to her defence. "There seems to be among some people a culture of a direct-rule mindset – shouting for money and not coming up with the solutions to fix the problem," the finance minister said, while patting Gildernew on the back for playing her part in his plan and being prepared to take criticism from the farming lobby to do so.

It was a brave move on Gildernew's part since she represents the mainly agricultural constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Then a few days later, Robinson had little difficulty finding funds to relieve the effects of flooding, mainly in his own East Belfast constituency. That money will be handed out to flood victims – "floating voters", as one commentator put it – in £1,000 chunks by Arlene Foster, the environment minister. As coincidence would have it, Foster was narrowly defeated for the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Westminster seat by Gildernew.

This may just be a fortuitous chain of events for the DUP. On the other hand, it may be a case of Robinson showing political skills of a high order and making his own luck. We can expect to see this level of skill, or luck, over the summer as the big push goes on to get more money out of Brown in time for Robinson to present the financial estimates in the autumn.

Salmond is a valuable ally. The DUP leader has suggested that the devolved administrations in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh could band together to extract more concessions from Westminster. Salmond has responded with a proposal to revive joint ministerial committees which were set up in 1999 to smooth the path of devolution, and seldom used since. This east/west axis is one of the forums that the DUP, once a pariah party with no allies outside its own faithful band of supporters, is using to increase its leverage.

Some issues are directly in Salmond's gift. One is the treatment of the high number of Northern Irish students at Scottish universities. Following legislation due to pass through Holyrood in the new term, these students will have to pay £1,700 a year in tuition fees while students from the Irish republic and other EU countries will pay nothing. Scottish colleges such as Dundee, which has a degree course in Northern Irish law, depend heavily on the overflow from the province's two overcrowded universities. Yet there is a clear argument that Northern Irish students, who are entitled to claim Irish citizenship, should be exempt.

Extracting the necessary funds from Westminster, and the budgets of the two assemblies, would be a first test of the new relationship. In return, Salmond could look to Paisley and McGuinness for support for his pet project: a low-emission carbon-capture power station planned for Peterhead in Aberdeenshire that is under threat after BP withdrew its involvement. Selling energy into the Irish market would make it more viable.

Scottish nationalism and Northern Irish unionism: not the likeliest of bedfellows at first glance. But look deeper and there are many synergies at work in this fast developing relationship.


June 17, 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on June 17, 2007.