Unionist electorate will make the decision on powersharing

  • 25 April 2006
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The DUP in Killarney spoke softly, but ultimately, it will be Ian Paisley and the unionist people who decide on the powersharing issue. By Eoin Ó Murchú

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is determined not to repeat what it sees as the mistakes of its sister party, the Ulster Unionists. And that mistake was getting too far ahead of its unionist constituency. There will be no renewal of powersharing until the DUP is assured that the unionist electorate is ready for it.

For them, it is not just a matter of the International Monitoring Commission (IMC) declaring that all is well with the IRA. Nor will what the police or the governments tell them be the crucial element. The unionist community must give its approval, otherwise no powersharing.

The noises made by the DUP in Killarney on 24 April, however, were encouraging not just because they suggest that the party is ready for powersharing, but also that it believes the unionist community may be ready as well. Peter Robinson said the DUP was a genuinely devolutionist party, anxious to exercise local power and accepting of the reality that it would be necessary to share it with Sinn Féin. "A clean bill of health" for the IRA from the IMC was a precondition. That would allow the DUP to consult unionism at large – a process which he envisaged as taking only a few weeks. If the unionist population was convinced Sinn Féin had ended its connection with paramilitarism, or with what he called 'criminality', then the DUP would move forward.

Robinson acknowledged that significant steps forward had been taken by the republican movement, and claimed that it was DUP insistence that produced these results. He asked for more time to bring the unionist population with them, and insisted on caution in assessing the progress currently being made.

It seems the spectre of the two governments abandoning the political parties and going ahead with "joint stewardship" of the process has concentrated unionist minds.

Dermot Ahern, while welcoming the positive tone of Robinson's contribution, insisted that the 24 November deadline for a deal was real. Otherwise, unionism faces the prospect of being excluded from the process of formulating policy in the North and on North-South issues.

As Ulster Unionist Party leader, Reg Empey, has said, in such a situation unionism would lose its veto.

So, while Robinson might declare that "none of the arrangements or structures ... can be imposed", some unpalatable choices are facing them in real life.

Nigel Dodds, who, along with Jeffrey Donaldson and Iris Robinson, accompanied Peter Robinson, pointedly commented on Mary Harney's remarks about Sinn Féin's non-acceptability as Government partners because of "the baggage" they carry. What an incongruity in the two governments trying to force the DUP into coalition with Sinn Féin while all the parties in the South were abjuring that prospect for themselves.

Fianna Fáil's Mary O'Rourke sounded an important note of caution when she said that the fear that people had, when they listened to what Robinson had to say, was that there would always be one more hurdle for republicans to clear, one more demand to be made, ever postponing the fateful day.

And Sinn Féin's Arthur Morgan, while welcoming the very positive note that Robinson had struck, wondered whether the big man himself – Ian Paisley – was of the same mind, or whether Robinson had been let off the leash to play 'good cop'.

There is some scepticism about the 24 November deadline, because the two governments don't have a good track record for facing down the unionists, or for keeping to their own imposed deadlines. But this time, there is a difference. No one on the British side even can put up a coherent argument for the Republicans to do more, and it does appear that Dublin has convinced Blair that the issue must be brought to a head.