Friday 14 September 2007

Phoney war, or phoney peace?

At the start of the second World War, from the declaration of war by France and Britain up to the German invasion of France and the Low Countries on 10 May 1940, there was a period during which neither side had yet committed to launching a significant attack, and there was relatively little fighting on the ground. This period became known as the Phoney War.

In Northern Ireland the same thing is happening, but it is not yet clear whether it is a phoney war or a phoney peace. Both sides have signed up to power-sharing, but on the unionist side at least they have not yet committed to any significant compromises with their nationalist 'partners'. On the contrary, there have been numerous examples of unionists, particularly from the DUP, sniping at the 'enemy'; from trying to rubbish Sinn Féin's proposals for tax varying powers, to criticising the plans for a stadium at the Maze, to dismissing the idea of a united Ireland as an "impossible myth", to trying to block an Irish Language Act, and so on.

Meanwhile the real battle has not even started, or at least not yet publicly. The Executive has not yet agreed its Programme for Government, and one can only imagine the discussions that are going on behind closed doors to try to find a Programme that both sides will sign up to. As so often, the DUP is busy painting itself into a corner – by publicly sniping at suggestions from Sinn Féin, they are limiting their own room for manoeuvre. If they think that Sinn Féin are going to accept a Programme for Government that contains only DUP-friendly proposals, then they are showing political immaturity. The Programme for Government will have to have as much in it for Sinn Féin as for the DUP, and will probably have to contain things that DUP MLAs have publicly denounced. Where will they then stand? Will they eat humble pie, or will they desert the party, as so many lower-level members have already done? Will they join Jim Allister's planned new party?

One thing is for certain – once the Programme for Government is published the phoney war (or phoney peace) will end. The sniping will have to cease, because the Programme will be a Programme for the whole Executive, DUP included. Either the snipers will split the DUP, leading to an all-out (political) war, or they will be silenced and marginalised and all-out peace may break out, complete with officially sanctioned republican-friendly policies, and fully functioning North-South Ministerial structures. The next few months promise to be interesting!

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