Tuesday 3 June 2008

Sinn Féin's 'nuclear option'

Today's media is full of stories that confirm the recent rumours that Sinn Féin is considering using its 'nuclear option' to deblock the unionist veto. As this blog noted yesterday, Northern Irish government is a system of mutual vetoes. The starting point, however, is not a level playing field, but rather a 'unionist-friendly' environment. Any attempts to bring about any change in this in-built bias are vetoed by the unionists.

Ian Paisley's retirement as First Minister provided Sinn Féin with the opportunity to use the ultimate weapon – the refusal to nominate his successor, Peter Robinson, as First Minister. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the First and Deputy-First Ministers must be voted into office simultaneously. By refusing to re-nominate the current Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin blocks the election of Peter Robinson. The situation must be then resolved within one week, or it is referred back to the British government, who are then required to call an election of the Assembly.

Since it was the same British government that publicly promised some of the things that the DUP have subsequently blocked, it is likely that they will approach the week of negotiation that would follow a failure to nominate in a slightly partial manner. The British government want policing and justice to be devolved, as do a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. The British believed it was implicit in the St Andrews Agreement (paragraph 7: It is our view that implementation of the agreement published today should be sufficient to build the community confidence necessary for the Assembly to request the devolution of criminal justice and policing from the British Government by May 2008). It is blocked by the DUP for reasons that few others share. Legislation for the Irish language was also an implicit part of the St Andrews Agreement (Annex 8: The Government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.) Again the DUP has refused to progress this, for reasons of anti-Irish bigotry.

On the other hand, even if the British government does not twist the DUP's arm (and realistically, it is unlikely that Sinn Féin really expect them to do so, especially with Gordon Brown needing every Commons vote he can get for his repressive legislation), the shadow of the 'Traditional Unionist Voice' hangs over the DUP. The recent Dromore by-election has shown that the TUV can take a significant chunk of the DUP's support; perhaps enough to rob it of its 'largest party' status, and thus its right to nominate the First Minister. While this, in itself, would not remove the unionist veto, it would be a massive blow to unionist confidence and self-esteem.

A new election would imply a new Programme for Government. In the light of the negativity displayed by the DUP in recent months, it is unlikely that Sinn Féin would agree a Programme for Government, and its associated budget, unless there are clear nationalist-friendly commitments in it. So regardless of the outcome of an election, the DUP will have to back off. The DUP has, through its own bloody-minded over-use of its half of the mutual veto, painted itself into a corner.

Essentially, the high-stakes game being played at the moment is about Sinn Féin flexing its muscles to show the DUP that there are costs involved in constantly blocking nationalist aspirations. Whether the DUP follows the nay-sayers, like their Chairman Maurice Morrow who said yesterday: "If they think this is going to get them a concession, then they are up the wrong street. I suspect they have got that message by now", or whether they join the real world of practical politics, where both sides get something, waits to be seen.

Peter Robinson's first test as DUP leader thus comes before he can become First Minister. Either he retreats from the permanent unionist veto, and visibly allows nationalist-friendly policies to be enacted, or he risks electoral humiliation. If the whole apparatus collapses due to the refusal of Sinn Féin to nominate, or the refusal of unionists to nominate a Sinn Féin First Minister, then Direct Rule by London returns, with all of the negative consequences that that would entail.

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