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

DUP-SF relationship — tensions could still lead to break-up

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

As the Northern Ireland Assembly returns to full sittings this week there are plenty of problems but only one big question. Has the DUP got the discipline to actually do business with Sinn Féin on difficult issues?

The Paisley/McGuinness double act has been effective at selling the province's image abroad. Both men have warm, charismatic personalities. In recent weeks they have visited Washington and Brussels where they have succeeded in giving the impression of having sunk their differences. However behind the scenes there is a more fraught relationship and tensions which could, without careful management, yet sink the coalition.

The differences are carefully stage managed by a well disciplined team for media handlers in the Office of First and Deputy First Minister, but they cannot be entirely hidden.

For instance last week in Brussels Paisley reacted with irritation to the suggestion that he should shake hands with Martin McGuinness as the two of them flanked Manuel Barroso, the EU President. He dismissed the very idea as a gimmick and "utter nonsense" but it can hardly be a good sign that after eight months in government normal courtesies can't be observed.

Until now the mood in the DUP seems to be that it is safest to say no to anything Sinn Féin wants unless there is a clear self interest in playing along. Thus the DUP shared power with Sinn Féin because, after IRA decommissioning, there was no other way to get its hands on the levers of government. They would have preferred a deal with the SDLP which excluded Sinn Féin but that was not an option

Om the other hand Paisley and his party avoided formally signing up to the St Andrews Agreement which was drawn up by the two governments. Instead they said it was an advance on what went before without making any commitment to implementing all its provisions.

That is why we have no Irish Language Act, although one was set out in the agreement. It is most unlikely that such an act will ever be agreed by the DUP who are also refusing to move on other nationalist demands like a Bill of Rights.

The majority of really tough issues, and some not so tough, which came up in the first months of government have been long fingered and are waiting to be dealt with over the next few months.

Another thorny decision deferred from last year is the future of selection in schools, where Sinn Féin's Caitriona Ruane has scrapped the current 11 plus system but has not agreed an alternative with her ministerial colleagues. Then there is the future of the Maze prison site where a multi sports stadium and a museum of the prison's history are proposed but not yet agreed by the DUP because of overblown fears by some party members that the museum may become a "shrine to terrorism."

Beyond that, there is the appointment of a Victims Commissioner and the process of local government reform where a reduction of council numbers is proposed but there is still no agreement on the details.

Many of these issues have financial as well as political implications and not all of them can be fudged. If the administration is to work its way through them there must be give as well as take by the DUP. In coalition you may try to get the better of your partners but you can't hope to get your own way on every issue, it's a question of priorities.

The first hurdle is the ratification of the Programme for Government drawn up last year but still hanging over the executive in draft form awaiting final approval.

The UUP and SDLP claim with some justification that it is a carve up between the two bigger parties. Departments like Health, headed by Michael McGimpsey of the UUP, and Social Development, under the SDLP's Margaret Ritchie, are flat lining in spending terms and are depending on the sale of assets to meet their budgets.

The assets, such as offices and land, are being dumped onto a depressed market. In any case there are serious doubts as to whether the assets can be sold, even at knockdown prices, and the proceeds spent by the end of the financial year. In Ritchie's department the capital is needed to increase the housing stock but the long lead-in time for building contracts makes it difficult to plan the construction of any social housing at all.

The DUP and Sinn Féin command such a huge majority that they can steamroller opposition from the smaller parties into the ground if they hang together. The problem is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for Sinn Féin to support the DUP line without receiving something in return and some sign of trust.

Gerry McHugh, the former Sinn Féin MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, was accused by the Sinn Féin leadership of resigning over the party's support for policing but gave another reason last week.

"The main reasons for my decisions (are) that the Assembly is being run by unionists, both at plenary and committee level and is strongly underlining British rule and the Union," McHugh wrote in a letter to his local paper.

"The DUP are extremely pleased with the way they have gained control over Sinn Féin; this is my major concern and one I could not have foreseen before the Assembly elections. Unionists have a majority at all levels, Sinn Féin can only deliver what unionists want."

Privately many in the DUP would agree with this assessment and they look forward to squeezing yet more out of Sinn Féin in the coming session. While it's true that the DUP has a strong hand there is a danger of overplaying it. They need to strike a bargain with Sinn Féin in order to ensure stability for the remainder of the assembly's lifespan. There needs to be something which the two parties agree and jointly deliver.

The key to keeping the whole show safely on the road is the devolution of policing and justice powers to Stormont. This was scheduled in the St Andrews Agreement to take place on May 8, the anniversary of devolution, but, like the other provisions of the St Andrews document, this timetable was not accepted as binding by Paisley.

The DUP has stressed repeatedly that it will make decisions on the basis of results not a timetable, but, whatever unionists say, the symbolic May 8 date hasn't entirely disappeared.

In fact it is written in stone because it has been chosen for the opening of a US investment conference in Belfast which has the official backing of both George Bush and Hilary Clinton. With money tight, this conference holds out the best hope for the executive to get through its first term without unpopular cutbacks.

It's essential that the power sharing administration should be showing a united front and evidence of progress by then; it badly needs inward investment and the executive must radiate stability.

Looked on historically, the devolution of policing is a surprising demand for Sinn Féin to make; in the past keeping security powers at Stormont has been a distinctively unionist concern but these are changed times and meeting this requirement gives the DUP a lot of leverage to exact further movement from republicans.

The obvious trade off for devolution is the disbandment of the IRA Army Council.

There is already the beginning of a choreography which may not end on May 8th but could be well underway by then. Ian Paisley Junior stated that he would give leadership on the devolution of policing and justice if republicans moved further on support for law and order and Sir Hugh Orde, the PSNI Chief Constable, has said publicly that the Army Council should disband.

His statement passed without any criticism or comment from republicans who continued to meet him at the Policing Board.

The IRA made no New Year statement this year. It's a curious silence which security sources believe signals a rethink.

The next opportunity for the organisation to speak will be Easter Sunday which falls on 23rd March this year. That is less than a week after St Patrick's Day when McGuinness and Paisley can again be expected to visit Washington and meet Bush and Clinton.

The timing couldn't be better for a last minute push with the usual nudge from Uncle Sam.

January 18, 2008

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on January 13, 2008.