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Robinson has played a shrewd hand so far

By Liam Clarke

Published 19/09/2015

Peter Robinson didn't get all he wanted from Theresa Villiers, but it's a start and he was wise to accept it.

He was also wise not to reveal his full six demands. It would have made him look weak when they were not met.

The situation behind the scenes is that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been reluctant to fold for Mr Robinson but the Secretary of State has seemed more sympathetic to him. Perhaps it's a nice cop/nasty cop act or perhaps they really do differ. That is something Mr Robinson will have to consider before he brings things to a juddering halt the next time there are difficulties.

The review of paramilitary activity is shorter than anticipated; the thought had been of an ongoing process and a clampdown. This was ruled out by the Irish government and the British weren't hard to persuade of that view.

However, the clampdown may follow. If this body produces a report as bad or worse for the IRA and other paramilitaries than the Chief Constable's assessment, then it is easy for unionists to order a clampdown. If it concludes that the IRA retrained some weapons as the last monitoring commission did, or that more were imported as is widely believed, then it is hard to believe that there will not be an attempt to get them.

These demands will follow the report. If it is held that IRA structures, or even networks of veterans, are involved in racketeering that will be impossible to ignore. What's more, the involvement of the NCA as well as MI5 and MI6, means that this will be largely paid for by central government.

As Mr Robinson put it: "She has shown she is prepared to take seriously the issue of paramilitary criminality. That is an important matter and it is good that there is a commitment to providing funds to enhance that."

It will also be outside Northern Ireland political control.

The report will also come out at about the time the talks are supposed to finish. As Ms Villiers put it: "This assessment will be published by mid-October and will be available to inform the parties' discussions and conclusions in the cross-party talks."

That could cause a row if Sinn Fein or the DUP don't like the assessment or any action which follows. That could be another crisis, but it is hard for Sinn Fein to walk out in protest at a security assessment.

Ms Villiers has given the DUP some more comfort. She said in the Commons on Tuesday that the government would, as a last resort, legislate for Welfare Reform in Westminster. This would effectively take the powers away from the Assembly and would be bitterly resented by Sinn Fein which is trying to get powers away from Britain, not hand them back.

The prospect will still focus minds. It is a bad precedent if every time we hit a budgetary problem Westminster has to come in to take the decisions for us. It makes Stormont look like an expensive talking shop.

That is the big danger in these repeated stand-offs. Parties do clock up gains from them, but more limited than they asked for. The price is that the entire credibility of the Assembly and of Northern Ireland, as a place to invest or work, is undermined. The price is also felt in bitterness, the desire for revenge and lack of trust. These talks need to set up structures to deal with this.

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