Yesterday a Tory spokesman said that the purpose of the Hatfield House talks between the Tories, the UUP and the DUP was to explore how "some of the political instabilities at Stormont" could be overcome, and "to avoid a situation in which we might potentially, should we win the election, inherit a collapsed Assembly and direct rule".
"So far as the Westminster election is concerned, the only deal is the current deal between the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists", the spokesman said; "we will be putting up 18 Conservative and unionist candidates at the next election, offering the people of Northern Ireland national politics and the chance to vote for modern, centre-right inclusive candidates".
Unless the Tories intend to show themselves up as liars, that, then, is that. No pact with the DUP for the Westminster elections. The ball is back in the DUP's court, in this game of hard-ball.
The DUP has been playing hard and offering up hostages to fortune. They have been firm is asserting their intention to stand in seats where they have recently out-polled the UUP – including South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone – while always carefully leaving the door slightly open to a pact with the UUP. But if it turns out that the 'pact' simply involves the DUP standing aside in South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone, with no quid pro quo in, for example, North Belfast, then the DUP will look humiliated. As so often, the DUP has been pushed into a corner and there is no obvious way out. Today's Belfast Telegraph claims that the DUP will stand aside - but 'in return for UUP support for the DUP over any eventual package on policing and justice which is, however, by no means certain'. It seems a very small return for a serious set-back.
Yet the Tories, haunted by the spectre of a hung parliament, are loath to surrender any potential seats – the UUP is in the bag, and the DUP's support can probably be easily bought – however if the 'target' seats remain in nationalist hands they are out of the Tories grasp. So, from a Tory point of view, any arrangement that delivers the target seats to any unionist party is beneficial. But no deal risks the seats remaining in nationalist hands. A true dilemma, and one that, no doubt, is being worked on despite the Tory assertions of no deal with the DUP!
The Tories do admit that the Assembly was on the agenda of their secret meeting. Here the speculation is that the goal is thwarting Sinn Féin's chances of becoming the largest party, and thus nominating Martin McGuinness as First Minister. There is another year before the Assembly elections (if there is no collapse or resignation before then), so plenty of time to come to an arrangement. Presumably a Tory party that has swept back into power in 2010 would be in a very powerful bargaining position in the run-up to the Assembly elections, and would be capable of pushing the DUP in the direction of a pact.
Why then, have these secret talks been taking place now, so far from the Assembly election, and yet so near to the Westminster election?
Something does not add up.
Owen Paterson, likely to be the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland after June 2010, would then be in a very powerful position, and would have a full year to exercise it. Yet he apparently started his 'unionist realignment' talks now, before he has any leverage at all? After June, if there is a hung parliament it may be the DUP that has the leverage, so any deal made now would be up for serious renegotiation. The whole thing has a fishy, and increasingly implausible ring to it.