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Plan B will neutralise DUP and the Shinners

(Newton Emerson, Irish News)

The question everyone's asking now is will Sinn Féin's vote go down at the next election – and the answer is of course it will, just like it went down at the last election (by 18,217 votes) and the election before that (by another 12,634 votes) along with the votes of all four main parties.

So, actually, that isn't the question everyone's asking.

What they mean to ask is will Sinn Féin's share of the vote go down at the next election – and the answer is probably not, because the SDLP has decided it needs one more smack around the head before replacing Mark Durkan.

Meanwhile, behind the regularly dry-cleaned vertical blinds of suburban Ulster, some have also begun to ask if the DUP's share of the vote might go down at the next election – and the answer is of course it won't, because the UUP's desperate attempt to 'out-Paisley Paisley' has reached its logical conclusion with the pathetic 'It's not fair' campaign, in which the former party of moderate unionism flashes its sectarian knickers so blatantly that half the Protestant population have choked on their caramel squares (albeit mostly with laughter).

So, all in all, it's just as well that none of this matters any more. Devolved power-sharing as a solution to our little problem is off the agenda indefinitely.

Blame who you like but don't kid yourself that an assembly as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement will ever meet again. After three attempts spanning 30 years to set up such an assembly, each accompanied by dire warnings that there was no possible alternative, some people might take a while to catch up with the new reality - but it was ever thus.

SDLP candidates were still campaigning under their Sunningdale Executive titles as late as 1979, bless them. A generation later Seamus Mallon famously described the Good Friday Agreement as "Sunningdale for slow learners" and it turns out he was right – because we've been far slower this time around at learning the same painful lesson.

What we really should have learned from Sunningdale is not that power-sharing nearly worked or should have worked but that, frankly, it didn't work. However, this lesson has now been learned in London and Dublin, where the obvious alternative is firmly back on the agenda. Quietly, carefully, definitely, Northern Ireland is heading for joint authority. Welcome to the Anglo-Irish Agreement for slow learners.

Typically the only party to have realised this so far is the party most determined to resist it.

Commenting on Monday's 'protocol agreement' between the PSNI and the Garda Siochana, DUP policing and justice spokesman Ian Paisley jnr said: "Fighting crime and terrorism is the number one priority in Northern Ireland and people will want to be convinced the protocols between the police here and the guards were being signed to aid that rather than for political purposes." But in distinguishing between the fight against crime and terrorism and the political purpose of the two governments the boy wonder shows he is still as much of a Good Friday Agreement antique as the chintziest member of the Women's Coalition. Making the fight against crime and terrorism their number one priority is the political purpose of the British and Irish governments.

The two concepts are no longer even separate, let alone conflicting. Worse yet for junior, it is the ordinary people of the Republic who have brought this about – and for that blessing those Protestants still choking on their caramel squares have raised 100,000 teacups in a private toast to Mary.

What really terrifies the DUP about joint authority is that already, quite clearly, it does work.

Both governments have always kept their options open in this direction. When Dublin dropped Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution it added a clause to Article 29 facilitating 'Extra-territorial jurisdiction'.

When Jeffrey Donaldson began his ludicrous leadership manoeuvrings Peter Mandelson warned the UUP that joint authority was London's 'Plan B' as well.

Neither government has set out their vision of what such a process will entail but if Ian Paisley jnr can spot the first moves then the rest of us have no excuse for missing subsequent developments.

The most immediate challenge facing the two governments is to reduce the size of Northern Ireland's political class while simultaneously addressing the democratic deficit.

It has now been proved beyond question that sectarian politicians only create sectarian politics – so the fewer of the former we have the less of the latter we'll suffer. However, it would be dangerous to embark on something as radical as a move towards direct rule, however subtly, without giving people some sense of accountability. One obvious way to begin squaring this circle would be to stop paying assembly members while granting Northern Ireland MPs Dail speaking rights. It really is a terrible pity that our current direct rulers have chosen the soft option on local government reorganisation. A Northern Ireland Metropolitan District Council could replace all the existing local councils, all the education and library boards, several Stormont departments and any number of agencies and quangos – yet still serve a smaller population than most of its English counterparts.

However, such a body might look dangerously like a substitute assembly – and that's not a mistake either London or Dublin will ever want to make again.

So be of good cheer, for suddenly it looks like we're all going to get what we want. Ireland will be united, yet Northern Ireland will remain a place apart – and neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP will get a say in any of it.

February 25, 2005

Newton Emerson is editor of the satirical website Portadown News.

This article appeared first in the February 24, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News