Dear me, what a fuss!
Accompanying the latest crisis at Stormont we have had to endure the frenzied reaction to a meeting hosted by Shadow Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, which included representatives from the DUP.
Designed to promote stability in Northern Ireland, the “Hatfield Talks” have acquired a subtext to suit every agenda.
On his blog, Ian Parsley reacts to the notion that three Conservative hopefuls have withdrawn from the race for candidate selection, due to their unhappiness at Paterson’s meeting. Nonsense, Ian contends, three professional people have simply lost patience with an interminable process.
Of course this insight illuminates an additional raft of internal problems.
The UUP is absolutely determined that its selection procedure will not be hurried. It is hardly fanciful to suppose that the lack of urgency stems from ongoing difficulties with the North Down MP, Sylvia Hermon.
“Indecision is final” as Alan Hansen is wont to declare.
Meanwhile Alasdair McDonnell is the latest figure to fulminate about the “orange card” or sectarian unionist compacts. The SDLP’s prospective leader will have a rather tenuous grip on his Westminster seat, should the DUP stand down in South Belfast.
With hysteria mounting it’s not a bad idea to step back and examine what we know.
The Conservatives have talked to the UUP and DUP about resolving problems around policing and justice. The DUP have suggested some sort of arrangement in the event that Stormont collapses and an Assembly election threatens to elevate Martin McGuinness to the status of First Minister. The UUP has not dismissed this suggestion out of hand.
The rest, frankly, is supposition, speculation, conjecture.
It has been explicitly stated by all those involved that the eventuality of a hung parliament has not been discussed, however much McDonnell or other interested parties would like to insist otherwise. Eighteen Conservative and Unionist candidates will contest eighteen seats in Northern Ireland at the general election. If two DUP candidates are stood down it is a positive result, however it is spun.
There are impatience and disagreements around selection, but the talks are a separate issue. Of course the Observer will claim otherwise. We are in the run-up to an election and the paper is avowedly anti-Conservative. More so as an election approaches.
As for the Stormont situation, we are not yet in an election situation and nor is it inevitable that one will develop. I am nervous that the Ulster Unionists will be used by a DUP engaged in tactical positioning, but I can see the merit in a shot across the bows of Sinn Féin.
Ultimately I would oppose an arrangement with the Dupes, if one were to develop, for two reasons.
First - that party deliberately engineered the situation in which we now find ourselves. It calculated that requiring the First Minister to come from the largest party, rather than the largest designation, would buttress its position. The UUP should not let the DUP off the hook, for any of its indiscretions.
Second - it does not require a change in the way power-sharing is being operated. The institutions, which have failed, will continue as before, along the same lines. Carve-up will be perpetuated and the Ulster Unionists will be complicit.
I also acknowledge, however, that whether we like it or not, the position of First Minister might not include de facto more power than the deputy position but it does entail becoming the senior figurehead for our Executive.
For all the huffing and puffing about bigotry, the worst indictment of sectarianism and hatred in Northern Ireland, is the fact that Martin McGuinness can aspire to that position.
As much as I loathe the DUP, as much as I maintain that their success is a symptom of a damaged society, how much more damning is the strength of a party intimately linked with a recent campaign of slaughter?
One senior figure has suggested to me that the past week could actually benefit the Conservative and Unionist project.
It will be more difficult to blame Ulster Unionists for a breach of “unionist unity” now that the party has shown willing to explore the option. Has the UUP managed to return serve rather effectively?
Losing three able prospective candidates in some ways simplifies the process of selection.
The advantage of working closely with the Conservatives has been demonstrated and the DUP will look even more silly insisting otherwise at the general election.
Despite the usual naysayers, and some elementary mistakes, the situation is not irrecoverable by any means. But Conservatives and Unionists need to wrest back control of circumstances and prove that they are neither at the mercy of events, nor are they stumbling along blindly from one crisis to the next.
The priority should be to select candidates swiftly and begin to set out the advantages of the New Force. Be positive, and forget about putting out inconvenient little fires, whether they are caused by Sylvia Hermon or the DUP.
And rather than colluding with that party in order to bail it out of the situation in which it finds itself, the Conservatives and UUP should be concentrating on twisting the knife.