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

The odd couple may still surprise us all

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

The big political development in Northern Ireland this year was the bonding of Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) into a durable partnership to manage the province's affairs. Once sworn enemies, they now form a tight team and will stand or fall on their joint record in government.

Yet last January it seemed unlikely that Gerry Adams and Peter Robinson would survive the year politically. The careers of both leaders appeared to be in meltdown as sexual and money scandals swirled around them.

Adams's problems surfaced first. In the run-up to last Christmas he attempted a damage-limitation exercise by giving a press conference in which he said that his father, also Gerry, had sexually abused some of his siblings. Adams said he had wanted to bring this into the open and, by doing so, help other families facing the same problem.

At first there was praise and sympathy for his courageous stance. Much of that evaporated after UTV Insight screened a documentary that alleged Adams's brother, Liam, had abused his daughter, Aine Tyrell, for about a decade. Tyrell accused Gerry Adams of covering up the abuse after she had told him about it. Adams said he had done all he could, including asking Liam to admit the alleged abuse, but the press continued digging.

Even after discussing the allegations with Gerry, Liam had worked in youth clubs in his brother's West Belfast constituency and in Dundalk, in the Louth constituency that the Sinn Féin president is contesting in next year's Dáil election. Separate allegations of a cover-up of sex abuse by other republican families emerged, with victims saying they were afraid to tell the police because of the IRA's code of silence.

At the time, everyone wondered why the DUP was not taking advantage of Sinn Féin's difficulties by demanding Adams's resignation and a public inquiry. Some said they were building up "brownie points" with Sinn Féin.

All became clear a few weeks later when Robinson gave a television interview in which he revealed that his wife, Iris, had been having an affair and had attempted suicide. She resigned as a DUP MP on the grounds of mental illness.

Just like Adams, Robinson benefited from an initial wave of sympathy that receded when a documentary - this time the BBC's Spotlight - revealed more. Iris Robinson, a born-again Christian whose moral campaigns included appeals to teenagers to abstain from sex, had been sleeping with a 19-year-old young enough to be her grandson. In addition, she had secured loans for him from two property developers - both described as friends and DUP donors by Peter Robinson - to set up a business leased from the DUP-run Castlereagh council.

The mixture of sex, hypocrisy and cash from builders was toxic enough. The Robinsons were also caught up in the Westminster expenses scandal and accused of extravagance. Although they had kept within the rules, the tabloid nickname "Swish Family Robinson" was widely published.

Now it was Sinn Féin's turn not to milk its rivals' embarrassment. In private, Martin McGuinness offered support to Robinson. The two men even shook hands for the first time and their previously rocky relationship was transformed.

Robinson was under real pressure.

In January, Gregory Campbell, a DUP MP, said the party executive had granted its leader just one week to sort things out. Later he stepped aside temporarily from the post of first minister to resolve his personal affairs.

McGuinness's support helped convince the DUP that Robinson was its best chance of retaining control at Stormont.

As if to prove it, the first and deputy first ministers steered through the devolution of policing and justice, maintaining a united front in the face of opposition from the SDLP and smaller unionist parties. They won community approval by vowing that dissident-republican and loyalist violence would never break their common purpose.

Robinson suffered a further blow when he lost his East Belfast seat at Westminster in May's election. For much of the year, the DUP had been fixated on the threat to its right from Jim Allister's breakaway Traditional Unionist Voice and from the Ulster Unionists. Instead Robinson's seat, which he had held since 1979, was lost to the Alliance party. Being in government with Sinn Féin was not an issue on the doorsteps. MPs' expenses and the way Iris Robinson had obtained money from builders were the hot topics in working-class areas, including the Cregagh estate where Iris is from.

Allister and Sir Reg Empey, then the Ulster Unionist leader, did not win seats at Westminster, and neither did their parties. The DUP vote was up, despite being in government with Sinn Féin and Robinson's personal difficulties.

The effects of the scandals that opened the year rippled through it. They helped cement the McGuinness/Robinson relationship and taught Robinson to pay attention to the threat from the middle ground. Since then the DUP has repositioned itself to attract moderates, selling itself as a post-Paisley party without alienating its Paisleyite core vote.

This is a delicate manoeuvre, but other parties have managed it. Fianna Fail is one example. Although nobody likes to mention it in DUP ranks, Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland is another.

The departure of Adams and Iris Robinson makes the new dispensation easier. Adams had picked fights with the DUP that many believe McGuinness would have avoided. Meanwhile, Iris Robinson's fundamentalist outbursts can be discounted as the result of mental instability rather than a reflection of Brand Robinson. The first minister has softened in manner and in political pitch. Now he talks of bringing people together and is an advocate of integrated education. That pleases both moderates and hardliners, who see it as a way of weakening the hold of the Catholic church.

The problem for Robinson and McGuinness is to keep things moving. One big project is the planned inquiry into child abuse in Catholic church and state-run institutions in the north. Their approach has won widespread support from victims. The strategy on the economy - refusing to raise taxes while asking Westminster for more money - is more questionable and is testing the patience of David Cameron.

Northern Ireland elections are not usually fought on economic issues but, unless the dissident threat grows faster than expected and draws in loyalists, they will be from now on.

So it ended up being a good year for the DUP and Sinn Féin. They have recreated the old pre-Troubles paradigm of one big nationalist and one big unionist party, and done so on a co-operative basis. Smaller parties complain that it is a carve-up between the orange and green power blocs rather than a genuine sharing of power on behalf of the whole community.

Learning to get on only goes so far. In the end the DUP/Sinn Féin partnership will be judged on delivery. Both parties took seats and support from the SDLP and Ulster Unionists on the promise that they would govern more effectively.

The growth of the DUP and Sinn Féin proves that Northern Ireland voters are fickle. Having turned once, they can turn again, as Robinson himself has found out.

Sinn Féin and the DUP now control Stormont and the patronage that goes with it. They are in a strong position going into 2011. It is theirs to lose.

December 27, 2010

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on December 26, 2010.



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