Who won last week?

All sides are claiming a significant degree of victory after this week’s events at Stormont; though I note that the degree of triumph is much greater from the DUP side. That may indeed be because the DUP has defeated SF and has yet again out negotiated it. The triumph might lead the DUP to suggest that “The Russian is finished” (I will explain at the end).

Certainly the executive is back to work, there is no date set for the devolution of policing and justice and Sinn Fein seem notably quiet in their comments. Now if the DUP have succeeded I will be delighted as should every unionist. There may, however, be a few clouds on the horizon.

Firstly if the latest deal is so poor for Sinn Fein and so good for the DUP why did SF agree to it? The DUP never tire of telling us how direct rule would result in a greater say for republicans. If that were the case why would SF have agreed to the executive meeting and not have collapsed the agreement? If the DUP victory is so complete and dircet rule would be so much better for SF why are SF supporting what has been agreed? Turkeys rarely vote for Christmas.

The next issue one must consider is how overwhelmingly annoyed SF seemed to be by the DUP not agreeing to the previous May 2008 deadline for the devolution of P&J. If they had felt short changed last time why on earth would they accept no date on this occasion? The DUP played the lack of date perfectly last time. It is practically inconceivable that SF would have made the same mistake twice: inconceivable that those who so comprehensively out manoeuvred Trimble would make remarkably similar mistakes. If, however, by some chance they have made that mistake one would expect them to simply stall the whole thing again and there is absolutely nothing to stop them. Whilst SF may (and only may) not have received a definitive date, the DUP certainly have not received a mechanism to apply sanctions to SF if they bring the executive to a halt again. The absolute best for the DUP is that they have held the line, there has been no advance on preventing SF from making the current system of devolution unworkable as and when they choose.

On the contrary the recent choreography makes it look as though the DUP have agreed to a deal but are being allowed to avoid the embarrassment of publicly giving SF a specific date for P&J devolution. Robinson’s sudden revelation that the he has been told that the “IRA is out of business for good and is not going to return” is of itself a most interesting revelation: even more interesting when one considers that the DUP have always claimed to be in favour of the devolution of P&J when there was community confidence (something they claim to be uniquely equipped to establish). To have Robinson seeming to accept “private reassurances” from the republican leadership is actually almost unbelievable; it makes Trimble and Jonathan Powell seem positively hawkish in their view of Adams and McGuinness. It is incredible of course unless one suspects that Robinson is preparing the ground for announcing that there is indeed such confidence: then such a conversion to accept SF’s honesty seems no longer naïve but deeply cynical.

The claim by Jim Allister on Let’s Talk that the civil service has sent round internal emails looking for people to join a P&J ministry is very interesting. The fact that Nigel Dodds made no attempt to deny the claim is even more interesting.

It is of course still somewhat unclear to what extent McGuinness as deputy first minister will be involved in judicial appointments but it looks very likely that he will be involved in appointing at least some of the people to the panel which will in turn appoint the judges. Again I hope I am gravely mistaken on this.

One of the other interesting factors is the “sunset clause” to cross community support for the P&J minister. If after 2012 this clause must be reviewed there is a grave danger that as with so many other things here there would need to be cross community support to keep the need for cross community support (I enjoyed typing that). In other words SF could veto the requirement for the justice minister to be elected by cross community support. The post would then default to d’Hondt. In such a scenario come the next d’Hondt round if the DUP were the biggest party they would have to take the finance ministry (Robinson has shown how necessary unionists holding finance is). SF would then get the next pick (unless the world is utterly changed) and I am very suspicious that we would see an SF justice minister and I would not be remotely surprised if that turned out to be a by then 59 year old with ministerial experience and an intimate knowledge of the justice system. What then for Nigel Dodds’s claim that an SF justice minister would be a political life time away?

Coming back to the start of my piece, who won and who lost is currently unclear to those outside of the very inner circle of power. Those inside may well, however, be well aware of the winners and losers. I sincerely hope that I am like the British public and even some in the admiralty who due to its confused and incomplete nature failed to understand that Jutland was a major strategic British victory. I hope that those in the DUP who are proclaiming a further victory are correct; I just worry that they might be saying “The Russian is finished” to which the reply was “I must admit, it looks like it.” The first comment was from Franz Halder, the reply from his chief of staff: the date 20th July 1942; Stalingrad was less than six months away.

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