I remember the pre St-Andrews Agreement negotiations. My politics teacher at the time described in detail (whilst going through the various sticking points) the obstacles that two so-called ‘parties of the extreme’ would have to overcome to get to a point of mutual agreement, especially within the confines of a mandatory coalition. He saw this as an inevitability (given the mood music) that they would get together. When the talks concluded and the document was published, it contained (as one would expect in any NI document) some unique wording (or constructive ambiguity) that could potentially be left open to interpretation by all sides of the table. This document was ultimately the basis for ten years of DUP and Sinn Fein rule. Many wondered at the time, and have always wondered how this could ever really be a long-lasting settlement? Despite what many within the DUP say publicly, they were and are ultimately wedded to the principles of the Belfast Agreement that they had previously opposed. Despite what Sinn Fein now say, they knew exactly what was going on in Government. In 2007, they knew exactly what they were getting into, and the knew exactly how to get there.
These two parties, historically ideologically at odds with one-another were brought together by the Blair Labour Government and a deal was thrashed out over a protracted period of time. Praising their own work of that time-period, Jonathan Powell hinted at it in his book, and Blair has often hinted over the years that this was nothing short of a “miracle” that these “two parties got together and agreed anything.” Listening to a BBC Nolan Show interview today with Peter Hain, (the former NI Secretary) he alluded to the fact that it may have been more of a case of a number of specific points “that they didn’t disagree on.” An interesting choice of words.
I remember a question on BBC’s Question Time in Belfast; “Was the whole talks process, (and Blair’s determination to get these two parties together quickly) a last-ditch attempt at a political legacy.” Afterall, Tony Blair didn’t want to be remembered solely for Iraq, so Northern Ireland increasingly became his primary focus towards the end of his time in office. Campbell, Powell, Mandelson, Hain et al were deployed to Northern Ireland with the goal of getting to that eventual point of agreement. Reg Empey once described St. Andrews as the “Belfast Agreement for slow-learners.” Was it not more of the case of a Belfast Agreement on steroids, with some cleverly-constructed language inserted for protection and opt-outs? St. Andrews was by and large the creation of the very sort of barristers and special advisors who are today being dragged over the wooden pellets. It was a document that ensured: i. Relative stability and job security in the short to medium term and ii. Future opt-outs so that if (and when) the proverbial eventually hit the fan; each side could blame the other, blame Government, and exit stage left.
Perhaps the true reason that this Executive pairing lasted so long was because the DUP and Sinn Fein got comfortable with the trappings of Government. “If you don’t like my principles, I have others” is a phrase I’ve heard used more than once to describe their relationship over the course of the last decade. Yes, we’ve had a series of crises. We’ve had scandal, threats of walkouts, in-out Ministers, re-negotiations and the rest. But Robinson’s DUP was never going to walk away from high office after years of planning to get there. Their Executive lasted, not because these parties got along swimmingly, not because they were motivated purely by Governing in the interests of the public first. It continued along the track primarily because existing parties of Government became the daily reality and the identity of these two parties as the years went on, specifically under Robinson and McGuinness. The vast majority of their MLAs in Stormont know of nothing else but being in a party of Government. For many, that’s precisely why they joined. Doing Government (whether good or bad) was what these parties did, it became their ideology. The second that the cat was out of the bag, and it became quite clear that some of them weren’t actually very good at it .. (In fact, economically incompetent is probably the best way to describe certain Minister’s)… the proverbial did in fact hit the fan. They were found out and the nuclear button was pressed. The blame-game has now begun.
The DUP ended David Trimble’s front-line political career by painting him as the “lundy” and the man who “sold-out unionism.” They then successfully sold their ‘fair deal’ to the electorate, which in essence was a re-packaged version of the very thing that they had consigned to the scrap-heap. Sinn Fein painted the SDLP as “weak” and easily out-manoeuvred by those big bad unionists. This too was a successful strategy, as was the familiar sight of them both retreating to old positions at each and every election. Led by Blair, they marched up the hill and managed to cling onto their Government jobs for a decade. In the end, that Executive has now gone up in smoke with the RHI scandal.
The question is: Is that model of devolution under the (warped) construct of mandatory coalition now dead, is it outdated, or is it on life-support? (Perhaps an article for another time..) Rather ironically, maybe the ones who could save that particular model of devolution are the initial cheerleaders, the very parties that were swept aside more than a decade ago.