“Well, that escalated quickly”, as people on social media are wont to say. One moment, the rhetoric around Stormont’s latest crisis was predictable and tired, the next, Mike Nesbitt announced his Ulster Unionist party was set to pull out of the executive. The UUP’s decision put their Democratic Unionist rivals under pressure to withdraw from government as well and collapse Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions, nine months before the next scheduled Assembly election.
Initially, the DUP responded through its North Belfast MP and deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, who said it would seek to exclude Sinn Féin from the executive, if the republican party did not “deal with the issue” of PIRA members murdering Kevin McGuigan.
The DUP, Dodds asserted, was prepared to bring down the administration at Stormont “very speedily”, if the “issue” was not “dealt with”, or Sinn Féin’s ministers excluded. The exact meaning of that bluster, you will have noticed, was not entirely clear, but the tone of his comments suggested that the Democratic Unionists’ withdrawal from government was highly possible, if not necessarily inevitable.
Enter stage left Peter Robinson, fresh from his summer holidays. The DUP leader quickly dashed off a platform piece for yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph, condemning Ulster Unionists for ‘fleeing the battlefield’ and implying that his party will confront republicans from the comfort of its executive seats. The content had not changed radically from Dodds’ statement, but its tenor had shifted dramatically.
Mr Robinson expanded on his article this morning, ahead of a scheduled meeting with the Prime Minister, by calling for a four week adjournment of the Assembly and an ‘intensive talks process’ to address Stormont’s problems. He wants the content to include, not only the murder of Kevin McGuigan and related issues, but also ongoing disagreements over welfare reform and other matters ‘causing deadlock’ between parties.
Suddenly, we’re back in drearily familiar territory, looking at the prospect of another round of crisis talks to overcome problems which, in properly working institutions, would either not arise at all (the fall-out of a paramilitary murder), or else form the everyday substance of government decision-making (reforming welfare and agreeing a budget).
It’s a favourite tactic for Mr Robinson and the parties at Stormont; shifting the onus of deciding what happens next unto the Westminster government, which risks appearing callously cavalier about the ‘peace process’ if it refuses to facilitate more negotiations. It also raises the highly unlikely possibility of extracting new funds from the treasury to ‘support’ a new agreement, all in the interests of helping poor, benighted Northern Ireland stagger past the latest obstacle to reconciliation.
However, in the current circumstances, Mr Robinson’s call for talks is designed primarily to wrong-foot the UUP.
If the DUP were to negotiate new ways to test political parties’ links to paramilitaries, it would claim that it had successfully emasculated republicans and Sinn Féin, while the Ulster Unionists shirked their responsibilities. And given that Mike Nesbitt’s party has walked away from government, what is its role in helping the executive surmount its difficulties, if talks do take place? Mr Nesbitt seems unsure. Meanwhile, the DUP insists that it has remained in the executive to fight for unionism and it will be an exceptionally truculent partner for its fellow executive parties, should it not get its way.
Mr Nesbitt sensibly opposed Mr Robinson’s proposal to adjourn the Assembly. Indeed, the motion for adjournment has been defeated in the Assembly’s business committee, courtesy of the UUP, SDLP and Sinn Féin. This deprives the DUP of more time to decide whether it will appoint a minister to replace the UUP’s Danny Kennedy, whose resignation from the executive precipitated the latest round of political tit for tat.
The UUP’s decision to leave the executive was an intriguing move, though it also highlights inconsistencies in the party’s thinking. When Mike Nesbitt became leader of the Ulster Unionists he emphasised his intention to stay in the executive, during the leadership contest. Now his party has framed its choice to withdraw from power-sharing, not only as a principled stand against IRA violence, but also as a way of creating a working opposition at Stormont to improve the way government here functions.
Nesbitt says he doesn’t want the Assembly to collapse and, certainly, the UUP’s strategy relies on the DUP remaining within the executive. However, the Ulster Unionists clearly intend to attack Peter Robinson on the basis that he hasn’t had the moral courage to withdraw his party from government.
Peter Robinson will worry away at any perceived contradictions in the UUP’s position. His return from holiday has certainly coincided with a more confident appearance to his party’s manoeuvres. There are suggestions that the DUP leader’s powers are diminishing, but he could yet prove to have enough political cunning left to outwit his unionist opponents again.