There’s been rather a lot going on in the north this past week, so let’s do a quick roundup of the major stories.
The Big Deal:
Devolution has been saved, huzzah! So what, after so many days of negotiation, was hammered out?
The full text is here [pdf], but most of it is newspeak and waffle. Here are the highlights:
Policing and justice: This will be devolved on 12 April, way before the DUP wanted. There will be a minister appointed by the Assembly on a cross-community vote, probably Alliance leader David Ford. The SDLP are spitting blood because under d’Hondt they would be due to take up the post, but it’s not as if they couldn’t, say, persuade unionists to give Margaret Ritchie the job. There’s nothing in the rules that says otherwise, but realpolitik says Fordy will get the gig.
What this means, practically, is that Fordy will replace Goggins, the NIO staff dealing with this area will move over to the justice department, and the minister will have a Stormont committee to answer to periodically. I’ve never understood, personally, why it was such a big issue, except that it became a virility test for the parties. There’s also a note from El Gordo about financing, but in the manner of these things it’s money he’s announced before.
Parades: The joint presidency will appoint a six-person committee of DUP and PSF MLAs to tinker about with the Pantsdown proposals before the marching season. This means the abolition of the Parades Commission, which was a key unionist shibboleth. However, they’re having to slowly get to grips with one of the key parts of the GFA settlement, which was the expectation that the Orange would have to obey the law – as opposed to the old days, when the Orange were the law. Expect the outcome to be a Son of Parades Commission with some local mediation processes bolted on – and don’t be surprised if it runs over time. Once we’re into the marching season, it will be hard to discuss anything before September.
Improving Executive function: Reggie and Margaret are to have a rinky dinky little working group of their own to bitch and moan about how the DUP-PSF duopoly aren’t paying them any attention. The bigger parties will pretend to pay attention.
Outstanding Executive business: this means the 11+, which the parties still can’t agree on.
Outstanding business from St Andrews: this means the Irish language. It’s doubtful the much ballyhooed Acht Gaeilge will ever happen, but the culture minister will have to come up with an Irish language strategy. Since this is Nelson McCausland, who only got the culture job to wind up nationalists, it should be fun.
My two cents: it’s a fudge, as these things always are, but in general PSF did well – they got their P&J date without budging on their red lines. The DUP have the demise of the Parades Commission to crow about, but it’s not a DUP-friendly deal and it looks like they buckled. However, they did this without splitting, and the Fourteen Apostles have stayed more or less on side. Why?
Well, there are a number of factors. One is that the DUP love devolution, their ministries and toy parliament, and don’t want another bout of direct rule – especially if it would be green-tinged direct rule. There was also the rumbling from the Brits about cutting off MLAs’ salaries if the Assembly was suspended, which may have concentrated minds.
And while loyalty to Peter Robinson isn’t quite absolute – especially from the Paisley faction – there’s a lot of respect for him as a negotiator, and he’s the best leader available, especially since exonerating himself and returning to the first minister’s office. There’s the famous DUP discipline, exemplified by those undated resignation letters all candidates are supposed to sign. And, while there’s still worry about electoral meltdown after the Robinson scandals, there’s a sense that their rivals have failed to take full advantage – the TUV may have lost a little momentum, while the OUP-UCUNF has been wrongfooted lately (see below).
Finally, what options do the DUP dissidents have? They don’t, at this stage, have the strength to force Robbo out – they had their chance to take charge of events and they blinked. And defection can’t seem like much of an option – the likes of Gregory Campbell, Nigel Dodds or Willie McCrea, much as they might chafe at Robbo’s leadership, are not going to be greatly enticed by the possibility of playing second fiddle to Jim Allister. Robbo, on the other hand, has smoked out his dissidents – he has to live with them, but he’s got their number.
What with the IICD’s mandate running out tomorrow, there’s been something of a rush to decommission, with no less than three announcements today. This raises a number of questions. One is to what extent the immunity associated with the IICD process undercuts what’s being done by the Historical Enquiries Team, the latter much beloved by the DUP. Another is that, since the decommissioning process involves carrots as well as sticks, to what extent we’ll be seeing funding turning up in various community groups. The political classes in Westminster, Dublin and Stormont are sensitive on the subject of writing cheques to superannuated paramilitaries, but there are ways to grease the wheels.
There was an announcement from Tommy Millions’ breakaway South East Antrim UDA. However, those shambling miscreants from the North Belfast UDA who were granted asylum in Carrick may like to think twice about going home.
There was an announcement from the INLA. This has not been universally popular with the Irps’ online warriors, but it does fit in with the IRSM leadership’s long-term perspective of renouncing militarism, cleaning house and striking out on a political path. This also involves a unity offensive aimed at getting the IRSP into a broad front, but it’s not yet clear who might be willing to go into a broad front with the IRSP. Certainly, their relations with éirígí – the closest group in terms of formal politics – are characterised by extreme suspicion shading into glowering hostility, whilst other groups of republican or socialist hue would be understandably cautious about going into any lash-up with the IRSP, at least until the house-cleaning has had time to bed down.
Finally, there had been speculation around Belfast about an announcement from the country’s most shy and retiring armed group – the Official IRA, alias Group B, alias The Stickies. That would have made sense in terms of bringing to a conclusion the Goulding project of converting the Republican Movement into a Marxist party – something that conditions in the north had stymied, much to the frustration of many WP veterans (not all of whom went with DL), who felt that the OIRA was unfinished business. As it is, we’ve had a statement from something purporting to be the “OIRA”, but it seems that may be the Newry-based ORM (who would then be claiming to be the Real Officials, as opposed to the Official Officials). Whatever about The Group That Doesn’t Exist, which never formally wound up or disarmed, it may have been too much to hope for a formal announcement.
Area woman appointed to world’s shittiest job:
The South Down and Londonderry Party held its conference at the weekend, and Alan was there getting a flavour of proceedings. The big news is that social development minister Margaret Ritchie beat out South Belfast MP and deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell for the leadership.
What does this mean in the grand scheme of things? From the outside, it looks like the SDLP will remain in a persistent vegetative state. I’m not a huge fan of Alasdair McDonnell, but in that I’m in good company – lots of SDLP people can’t stand him, particularly those who’ve worked closely with him. On the other hand, it seemed to me that Big Al was the SDLP’s best chance of revival. You saw this in his remarkably bolshy concession speech, when he said that he’d offered radical change but it was seemingly too radical for the party. What he meant, apart from a more aggressive approach to the Shinners, was that he’d wanted the SDLP to operate as a functional party rather than a federation of local fiefdoms – something it’s never been, and apparently never wanted to be. He’d also been a partisan of merging the SDLP into Fianna Fáil, but – just as NIPSA failed to roll itself into the PCS when it had a chance – this fell foul of the parliament of mice.
Brian Feeney put it well when he said that Margaret would ruffle no feathers – she hasn’t even managed to persuade Eddie McGrady that 73 might be a nice age for him to retire from Westminster. Big Al, on the other hand, was convinced that feathers needed to be ruffled. The party, if one can call it that, disagreed.
Mark Durkan had a good joke at the SDLP conference – he does have his moments – that Reg Empey had had more partners than Tiger Woods. Political partners, that is – the idea of Reggie as a John Terry-style lothario doesn’t really bear thinking about.
Anyway, as you’ll know, Reggie has taken the Official Unionists into an alliance with the British Tories, the snappily named Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force. (That’s UCUNF, which is not how it’s pronounced in Belfast. I am still waiting for them to ally with the TUV and become the Conservative and Unionist New Traditionalists.) This has geed up the Toryboy wing of his ramshackle party – the remaining Labour-leaning Unionists are unhappy, but they have nowhere else to go – with a quixotic vision of non-sectarian pan-UK civic unionism that would mobilise the mythical Garden Centre Prods while magically transforming middle-class nationalists into unionists. Personally, I think these guys have spent too much time in England.
Anyway, it became known a couple of weeks back that Tory spokesman Owen Paterson had brokered inconclusive talks between the OUP and the DUP aimed at creating an electoral bloc. It further became known that, unbeknownst to Reggie’s Tory allies, there had been previous unity talks between the two parties brokered by the Orange Order. This led to three Tory candidates, two of them women and two Catholics, resigning. Reggie has now said that unionist unity is a generation away, and there is now a push to get the three Tories to unresign. However, in the interim he has lost his very able director of communications, Alex Kane, who is dead against any deal with the Dupes and fired off a parting broadside in his News Letter column. (Granted, as an atheist and anti-monarchist, Alex was an odd fit for the OUP, but he was far and away the best they had.)
Reggie is also promising to speedily deal with the Sylvia Problem – that is Lady Sylvia Hermon, the OUP’s sole MP and arguably the most popular figure in the party, who is inconveniently a Labour supporter and adamantly refuses to run under the UCUNF label. So dismissive is she of Reggie’s big idea that she hasn’t bothered to attend party conference for two years running, and on the day of the last one was ostentatiously photographed doing something much more important – walking her dog. Reggie has signalled to his Toryboys that she’ll be swiftly defenestrated, but this is a headache in itself, given her strong support from the North Down UUA, and also the friendly reception that she got recently from the North Down SDLP – since a nationalist vote in North Down is a wasted vote, quite a few Bangor Catholics may be tempted to lend an X to a non-sectarian moderate civic unionist. I still wouldn’t like to bet against her beating the crap out of anyone the Unionists or Tories put up against her.
All this means that the OUP-Tory relationship has been put under strain, while chasing the chimera of unionist unity has undermined the logic of UCUNF. Tory Story says Paterson put conditions on any united unionist bloc that it would be non-sectarian and committed to genuine power-sharing with nationalists – neither party has a stellar record on those things, and as the Horseman points out, what the Brits think of as British values and what unionists think of as British values are not necessarily the same thing.
Besides, UCUNF still haven’t got their candidates in place. Reggie has been tantalising us with a star-studded lineup of rugby legend Trevor Ringland in East Belfast, teevee anchor Mike Nesbitt in Strangford and, er, Freddie Mercury impersonator Flash Harry in Upper Bann. We, the punters, expect him to follow through.
Self-defeating strategies, part 94:
Not, strangely enough, from éirígí, who are being surprisingly sharp. No, they are playing a game of rope-a-dope with the PSNI, whereby éirígí activists are engaging in agitprop stunts, and the cops are Section 44ing them with gay abandon. Thus, er, proving their point about repression of republican political activity.