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

DUP to adopt a cooler attitude to SF

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

The DUP has served notice that it doesn't plan to remain in government with Sinn Féin indefinitely.

Peter Robinson, the party's deputy leader who is tipped to take over from Ian Paisley, said his strategy was to reduce the number of ministries at Stormont and move away from coalition with republicans.

In an interview with the Sunday Times Robinson also indicated that Paisley's successor would abandon the "Chuckle Brothers" relationship with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin.

"The style of leadership will change, nobody is going to have the same style as Ian Paisley, nor will anyone have the position within the party that Ian Paisley had. He is a man who formed the party around himself. He had a different standing within the party. The new leadership will be more corporate in style" said Robinson when asked about the chuckle brothers approach.

"I don't think anyone will want to do anything that will trivialise the murder in which the republican movement has been engaged."

Robinson's emphasis on a more reserved and reticent style chimes well withthe views of party grassroots and elected representatives. MLAs who came into the Assembly in last year's DUP landslide fear they could lose their seats in the next election if their leadership appears too comfortable with Sinn Féin.

Next year the DUP is determined to regain its Euro seat from Jim Allister. He was elected as a DUP candidate but broke away in protest at power sharing. There are fears that Sinn Féin to emerge as the largest party in Northern Ireland unless they can decisively defeat Allister.

"It wouldn't take much of a swing" said one party activist. "There are no real problems with what the party is doing in government, we have been pretty tough on the issues, but a section of voters are disturbed by the happy pictures of Doc and McGuinness. When Doc isn't sure how to act his answer can be a big hearty laugh, but it isn't playing well in this case."

Robinson said he would like the form of government at Stormont changed "Asap. As soon as possible."

However he made it clear that he envisages a strategy to achieve a reduction in the number of ministries and a voluntary form of coalition rather than a sudden pullout.

"We don't have the form of government that allows one party to take that kind of decision" he said.

"There will have to be a progression towards reducing the scale of the political bureaucracy. That means reducing the number of departments, reducing the number of MLAs and making sure that people get better value for their money."

"The second element is changing the way the assembly operates and the way the executive is formed. I think you will have to move towards far more normal democracy ... This is not our favourite process. They [Sinn Féin] certainly are not our favourite partners" he added in a reference to ending the current mandatory form of coalition.

"We are there because it was the best option available at this time for the unionist community. We resolved to do business on behalf of that community; we shall approach it in a professional and businesslike way."

Robinson's conditional stance commands overwhelming support amongst party members and elected representatives.

Sammy Wilson, an influential DUP MP and MLA who chairs the Assembly's Education Committee, backed Robinson. He added that that there were circumstances in which the power sharing arrangement could be "scuttled", although he hoped that it wouldn't come to that.

He singled out two issues, policing and education, as potential deal breakers. The St Andrews agreement set May as a target date for policing powers to be devolved to Stormont but the DUP say that it cannot happen until the IRA Army Council is disbanded.

"If the [British} government tried to force the pace on policing and justice that would scuttle the executive. I'm pretty sure that would finish it and it would also be scuttled if Sinn Féin ministers try to find ways of circumventing the safeguards we have on ministerial accountability" Wilson said in reference to Caitriona Ruane, the Sinn Féin Education Minister. He is believes she is attempting to push through changes to the transfer procedure from primary to secondary schools without adequate planning or consultation.

"Caitriona Ruane seems to be trying to circumvent the procedures but she is the only one doing it and I think Sinn Féin is trying to rein her in. I hope they will succeed" said Wilson.

"There is no desire on our part to collapse it just because we don't like our partners in government but there are limits".

March 10, 2008

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on March 9, 2008.