Tuesday 23 October 2007

Is the DUP capable of governing?

Before the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive in May this year there were many people who questioned the DUP's willingness to share power. Few questioned their ability – there was a generally held view that the DUP was highly disciplined and motivated and could therefore do the job if they decided to do so. The relief that greeted the DUP's entry into government was partly based upon this belief in their ability.

It is becoming increasing apparent that this generally held view may well have been wrong.

Since the end of the Executive's 'honeymoon' period, during which they basically did nothing, and thus conversely gave the impression of success, the real ability of the DUP to cooperate, to share power, and to govern in the interests of the whole of Northern Ireland has been tested, and is increasing found wanting. Their flaws are becoming more visible, and are combining to give the impression of a party that does not know how to share power, and may not even be able to keep its own supporters happy.

For most of its history the DUP was the opposition to the dominant unionist party. It was the party of protest, of outrage, of the grassroots unionists who felt that neither the middle class UUP nor the blow-in direct rule ministers understood or shared their concerns. Its supporters were more strident, more orange, and even more bigoted, than those of the UUP. Recently, though, it began to attract support from people who might previously have voted for the UUP, and benefited from some high-profile desertions from the UUP. As a result, for the first time it became the dominant unionist party, and began to enjoy the trappings of power that that position brought.

The DUP's entry into the Executive seemed to be the cherry on the bun for northern Irish democracy – with no significant party to their right, the DUP represented the final acceptance of the overwhelming majority of unionists for power-sharing.

But the old questions about their willingness to do it are starting to creep back, and are being joined by subversive whispering about their ability to do it.

  • The recent debacle about the funding for the UDA-CTI scheme, and particularly Peter Robinson's disgraceful part in the tale, shows that the DUP is sticking to its 'us versus them' mentality, rather than pursuing the best interests of all of the people. Robinson seemed keener to shaft his colleague (Margaret Ritchie) than to choke the UDA.
  • Edwin Poots' dismissal of legislation on the Irish language shows that the old bigotry is still alive and well – on grounds of 'cost', of course, but he fooled no-one.
  • Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster have managed to give a convincing impression of sleaze with regard to the Giant's Causeway visitors' centre issue. Who was it that said 'power corrupts'?
  • And now Jeffrey Donaldson and Ian Paisley Junior are trying to milk the death of Paul Quinn at the hands of south Armagh criminals to threaten the whole project. (and here and here)

It is clear that the DUP still sees its role in the Executive as that of a blocker – blocking anything and everything that nationalists want. The party is essentially reactionary, and has no vision of what it wants or where it wants Northern Ireland to go. It merely wants to stop the nationalists from making any progress towards their goals, a role it played so strenuously over the long years of its minority years.

The problem is that it is no longer the minority unionist party, and the rules of the game have changed. Politics in Northern Ireland is no longer about jeering at the Catholics from behind the protective wall of British military and financial support. That protective support is being slowly but surely dismantled. The stunted development of unionist politics is become clearer by the day, and having assumed the mantle of majority unionist party, it is now the DUP's stunted development that the world is watching.

By taking an unpopular tribal position on the UDA funding issue the DUP displayed its political immaturity. By taking a position on the Irish language based solely upon its own tribal prejudice, the DUP showed its narrow and mean-spirited approach to reconciliation. By reverting to the tired rhetoric of the pre-restoration days, the DUP is giving the impression that it still views the whole Executive as a temporary and disposable project.

Unfortunately for the DUP, its political immaturity, born from a generation of protest politics, may be its downfall. It has already lost supporters on its right wing, who disagreed with it entering the Executive. As yet, these deserters have no organisation, and their numbers are hard to estimate. On the more centrist wing of the DUP, some ex-UUP members and supporters must be becoming uneasy over the DUP's treatment of Margaret Ritchie, and the impression of sleaze created by the Giant's Causeway affair. Yet, faced with the possibility of losing support on the ground, the DUP has chosen to set out to alienate as many other parties as possible: the SDLP directly via the UDA affair, Sinn Féin via the Irish language and Paul Quinn affairs. The UUP and the Alliance Party have even found themselves obliged to step into unfamiliar territory by the DUP's extremism; the UUP by supporting Ritchie, and the Alliance Party by supporting the rights of Irish speakers.

Does the DUP really think that a power-sharing Executive can function in such circumstances? They appear to be contemplating a post-power-sharing scenario, though without any apparent idea of what that might look like. Have they any idea of what might await them if they succeed in destroying the Executive? Britain does not want to step back in, and certainly has no intention of continuing to underwrite the enormous cost of the dysfunctional northern Irish economy. Those days are gone, and there are new rules for the game now.

The fear of a more nationalist-friendly Plan B got the DUP to enter the Executive in May, but what makes them think that the two governments do not still have a Plan B in the event of the Executive collapsing?

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