The resignation of Ian Paisley has been widely reported as representing no threat to the power sharing institutions of the St. Andrews Agreement. This is something of a puzzle since Paisley’s resignation is in no small part a result of the Dromore by-election, which saw a substantial minority of unionist voters register their complete opposition to power sharing. It is not much of a surprise therefore that the London ‘Times’ has revealed the British government’s real concern for the future of the power sharing deal.
It stated that ‘The timing of his [Paisley’s] loss is profoundly unfortunate. The new institutions have been reasonably well established but cannot be described as secure. It would have been in the best interests of Northern Ireland if the First Minister could have stayed in place for at least another six months, entrenching the DUP-Sinn Fein accord further in the process, dealing with the controversial transfer of policing and justice to the Province and seeing through the summer marching season.’ The ‘Times’ went on ‘If Mr Robinson starts to find artificial fights with those who should be his partners then this will be reciprocated. And if that occurs, a fragile political bargain that serves the wider interests of Protestants and Catholics alike may be imperilled. Mr Robinson needs to state unequivocally that he intends to make the new arrangements work and that extremists who disagree with him can take their leave of the DUP.’
Peter Robinson however might recall that previous unionist leaders have come a cropper by going along with British demands, and that Paisley didn’t get where he was - to be top of the unionist pile - by compromising with Irish nationalism. The Dromore by-election was simply a reminder of this. The votes for the most blistering opponents of the current deal were of course a minority but Paisley also stated off in a much smaller minority.
No sooner had this warning been issued but Robinson revealed the end game of the DUP, indeed of all unionism, by stating that they aimed to dispense with power sharing altogether and head towards majority rule, i.e. unionist rule – ‘a far more normal democracy‘ he said. This is one hell of a sham fight to pick. The media have stayed true to their servile support for British policy by passing over this statement almost in silence. Certainly the threat to destroy the existing institutions by the putative leader of the biggest party has hardly received the attention it deserves. Nationalism has closed its eyes and hopes it’s all posturing. I think however this might be what SDLP politicians call ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’, thinking themselves ever so smart, but totally forgetting what happened to Sunningdale in the end.
It would also have been better for Sinn Fein if it too pretended that Robinson hadn’t said what he actually did say. Their response has been so weak as to reveal nakedly their limp prostration in front of the DUP. With Paisley having just revealed that the ‘chuckle brothers’ of himself and Martin McGuinness were not getting on quite so famously – he never refereed to McGuinness by name but only as ‘deputy’ and never once shook his hand; Paisley also crowed that he had in fact achieved his long standing election battle cry of "smashing Sinn Fein."
Much ridiculed because the Sinners are now in government, Paisley’s logic is pretty compelling. ‘I did smash them because I took away their main plank. Their main plank was that they would not recognise the British government. They can’t be true republicans when they now accept the right of Britain to govern this country and to take part in that government.’ As the ‘Times’ put it: ‘Bobby Sands and nine other men did not starve themselves to death so that Mr McGuinness could play the lesser role in a Chuckle Brothers routine within the United Kingdom,’ except that is what has happened.
Gerry Adams warned the DUP not to pick ‘sham and phoney fights with Sinn Fein.’ Why? Because this would frighten away foreign investment! The same foreign investment that isn’t coming in the first place. So no mention of what Sinn Fein would actually do to protect its position in government. Instead Adams stated, after having even been prevented from holding a commemoration for a republican volunteer at Stormont, that ‘republicans have been banned and censored and excluded before. Banned as a political party; banned from our city centre; banned from the airways; banned and demonised and vilified, and we came through it all.’
But isn’t all that supposed to belong to the past? Aren’t they now in government? Isn’t that supposed to mean an end to such things? Why are they now banned from certain places – Stormont’s Long Gallery; banned from the airways – unionist prevented cameras from accessing any attempt to film their commemoration anywhere else at Stormont? And what about the constant vilification, not to mention of humiliation, of Sinn Fein by the DUP – who continue to boast that they have ‘smashed’ the republicans?
Anyone who wants to write all this off as simple posturing hasn’t been paying attention over the last forty years. What do they call it? The triumph of wishful thinking over experience?