Our Supreme Leaders trapped in own cold war
Published 19/04/2013 | 09:00
The stand-off between Sinn Fein and the DUP reminds me of North Korean diplomacy. I'm not hinting that either party resembles a secretive, Stalinist personality cult (perish the thought).
No, the similarity lies in the danger of miscalculation in the face of belligerent rhetoric and social problems. The citizens of Belfast aren't starving, like many in Pyongyang, but unemployment figures are up 1.5% year-on-year.
Most observers believe that Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un doesn't really want a nuclear war. He is just using the threat to unite his followers, distract people's attention from practical problems and, hopefully, extract financial aid and concessions.
The danger is that, as the tension ratchets up, someone, whether in Kim's military or someone else's, could miscalculate and bring the roof down on his head.
Sinn Fein and the DUP are yoked together by necessity. One can't rule without the other's support and, if the Executive collapsed, it would be seen as a failure by the leadership of both parties.
So they both need it to work, but neither one – especially not the DUP – wants to appear too cosy in bed with the other at a time of austerity.
Sinn Fein needs to show that it hasn't forgotten about uniting Ireland and settled for devolution. So it talks up the border poll.
The DUP needs to show that it hasn't gone soft. So it reacts strongly to republican rhetoric. The result, as a friend texted me recently, sometimes resembles the cold war between the USA and the USSR.
The question is: can you run a democracy and share power effectively with the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction as your lodestone? The present tension goes back to the end of the last year's marching season and the subsequent flag protests. Since then, both Peter Robinson and Gerry Kelly have questioned the impartiality of the police and courts.
The two parties have also clashed publicly, each accusing the other of obstruction.
In October, Peter Robinson accused Sinn Fein of "paralysis" and of allowing the SDLP to set its agenda. At the weekend, Martin McGuinness suggested the DUP didn't want to share power with him and did not respect his Irish identity.
Such speeches, at internal gatherings, can be seen as party management, but they are also poisoning relations in government.
On Monday, a Belfast Telegraph survey showed that Sinn Fein supporters attending the annual ard fheis still had mixed feelings about the dissidents. The DUP hit out angrily in the Assembly, quoting the findings and calls at the ard fheis for the release of two dissident prisoners.
An angry Press conference by Arlene Foster and Edwin Poots followed.
Perhaps the intention was to shift the news agenda away from the fact that the DUP had just voted for Mitchel McLaughlin of Sinn Fein as principle deputy Speaker in preference to Basil McCrea.
They had to do that, because, as Peter Robinson told MLAs, "appropriate cross-community balance in various positions is essential to the operation of the institutions".
Balance is essential to governing this place. We need a common front from our two Dear Leaders – not a Korean-style war of words.