4 February 2010 Edition
Can the DUP do business?
BY LAURA FRIEL
OVER a week of intensive political negotiations involving all the parties in the North, the Irish and British Governments and even the US Secretary of State on the transfer of policing and justice powers from Britain to the North have now come to a conclusion.
All eyes are now on the DUP, who have yet to indicate that the party will endorse the agreement involving its negotiating team.
The Irish and British Governments have announced that in the event failure to secure that agreement and a collapse of the North’s Executive, they would avoid a lengthy suspension of the institutions by calling a snap Assembly election. This is something that many observers say DUP leader Peter Robinson wishes to avoid. However there are those within the DUP who are opposed to power sharing per se and power sharing with Sinn Féin in particular.
A statement of support from the DUP Assembly team yesterday could not dispel media speculation of divisions within that party. However what is clear is that despite up to 14 DUP Assembly members being opposed to a power sharing deal on the basis of equality, Robinson does still enjoy a majority within his party. And even more significantly it is clear from the numerous interviews by members of the broader unionist electorate, that the vast majority want their leaders to do the deal and get on with the job of governance.
The talks process, always difficult, ran into serious difficulties over a week ago. The failure to strike a deal, despite intensive negotiations and the involvement of the Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, last week, did not bode well.
In the wake of three days of round-the-clock meetings, the two Premiers announced their departure last Wednesday, 27 January. Cowen and Brown were leaving, having established a “pathway” to agreement with the parties, they told the media. But their departure without a deal in place seemed more telling than the spin that accompanied it.
In a joint statement, Cowen and Brown said they had worked hard to establish common ground and to build dialogue between the parties.
“We do not pretend that this is an easy process. The issues we have been discussing go to the very core of Northern Ireland’s past and their solutions are the foundation for Northern Ireland’s future,” ran the statement.
“We have made progress but it is right that the parties themselves now work together, in the spirit of trust and understanding, to agree and take ownership of the solutions,” said the two premiers.
Meanwhile, DUP leader Peter Robinson said his party was in favour of transferring policing and justice powers.
“We remain committed to building a consensus with all the Assembly parties on how this can be achieved without undue delay. We realise that Stormont, whatever its current imperfections, is infinitely better than direct rule. Our party is up for a deal,” said Robinson.
PATIENCE WEARING THIN
But by Saturday Sinn Féin’s patience was wearing thin. The deadline set by the two governments had passed and Sinn Féin Minister Conor Murphy said his party was not prepared to continue the talks throughout the weekend unless it was confident of securing a deal.
“The DUP have inserted a precondition around parading. It’s a foolish one. It’s at the behest of the Orange Order and we’ve told them it’s not on. We’ve told the two governments to tell them it’s not on,” said Murphy.
Murphy said the DUP must move forward on the basis of what has already been agreed but Sinn Féin would not be “hanging around waiting for the DUP to make up its mind. If there is a possibility of a deal we will pursue that but at some stage we will have to decide whether the DUP are capable or willing to do the business or not,” said Murphy.
Earlier in the week Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said his party wanted to see a resolution to contentious parades but “anyone who thinks that the price of policing and justice is a walk down Garvaghy Road or Ardoyne is ridiculous.”
But by Sunday the mood emanating from the talks was more positive, with both the DUP and Sinn Féin indicating there was likely to be a deal. DUP Minister Edwin Poots spoke of “significant progress” and indicated that a deal was likely to be announced on Monday.
EQUALITY THE KEY
Speaking at the annual Bloody Sunday Commemoration in Derry, Martin McGuiness said the talks were about equality.
“These talks are about equality. It is about rights, your rights, my rights, our rights. These are not negotiable. They are entitlements,” said McGuiness.
People wanted a complete and accountable system of government, said the Sinn Féin leader. “The rights to a proper policing service, the right to institutions which deliver, the right to see poverty tackled. Institutions that don’t deliver are worthless and something I won’t be part of,” said McGuiness.
Despite difficulties, the Sinn Féin chief negotiator said there had been significant progress. “I now hope we have a basis upon which nationalists, republicans, unionists and loyalists will move forward together on the basis of partnership and equality. There is no other realistic or viable path available,” said McGuiness.
Monday’s format seemed straightforward, a formality almost, with the negotiating teams briefing their party reps as the final stage towards endorsing a deal already hammered out. The parties were upbeat, the media was upbeat and the two premiers had cancelled their engagement to be ready for the call.
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams described the Peace Process as a “journey”.
“There will be other difficulties, but hopefully we will be able to build confidence that this new phase will be based upon partnership and equality right at the heart of the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister and the Executive,” said Adams.
The reason why it was taking so long to reach an agreement, said Adams, was because it was over a crisis that had been two years in the making. But the Sinn Féin leader said he would be very disappointed “if we do not close very quickly on the outstanding issues”.
Sinn Fein’s Assembly group met for 90 minutes before emerging clearly ready to move forward. There had been an earlier meeting between the two parties which had seemingly not thrown up any difficulties.
The impetus was there, the basis of an agreement was there; now all that was needed was the political will to move forward. After over 100 hours of continuous talks, the question hung in the balance, could the DUP do the business?
Comments to the media by Gregory Campbell suggesting the DUP would seek ‘public consultation’ appeared as the first cloud on the horizon of what had promised to be a better day.
The DUP’s Assembly team met at Stormont at 11am. An hour, 90 minutes, two hours passed. Early afternoon gave way to late afternoon. When the DUP team finally emerged at 6pm to speak to the media, night had already fallen.
The DUP leader Peter Robinson had descended down the stairs of the Great Hall, flanked by his deputy leader Nigel Dodds, former First Minister Ian Paisley, acting First Minister Arlene Foster, Sammy Wilson and Gregory Campbell.
After almost two weeks of day and night discussions the DUP seemingly couldn’t agree amongst themselves.
A weary Peter Robinson announced his party colleagues were “still to be satisfied” and as a result were not yet prepared to sign a deal. At a brief press conference, Robinson announced difficulties with some issues.
“The group has identified some issues that have to be resolved and items about which they need to be satisfied,” said Robinson.
The DUP may have moved away from “Never, never, never” to maybe, maybe, maybe not, but the repeated citing of perceived rather than substantiated unionist discontent is wearing thin.
Writing in The Irish News, Brian Feeney accused the DUP of displaying a hatred of republicans that “has all the characteristics of racism” which, “coupled with fundamentalist religious bigotry makes reaching an agreement with republicans almost unthinkable for some in the DUP”.
Feeney, not known for his love of republicans, compared the behaviour of some members of the DUP with the restrained behaviour of Sinn Féin MLAs who endure this appalling behaviour while trying to engage their “DUP tormentors”.
Republicans have shown great patience but the question remains as yet unanswered: Can the DUP do business?
Media wait outside Hillsborough Castle gates