Belfast Telegraph

Sir Reg was right to get real about politics

By refusing to be browbeaten over policing and justice, the Ulster Unionist leader was only acting like a politician should, argues Malachi O'Doherty

Reg Empey's political gamble was to put party interest above the peace process. It was about time someone did that.

The argument marshalled against him was, effectively, that he had a moral responsibility to put the advance of the process above all else.

When that process now involves the cementing of relationships between Sinn Fein and the DUP, to the detriment of all other parties, he had little incentive to play along. Yet the onus placed on him by those parties and by the British Government was an old familiar one; it is one that has directed his party and others before towards sacrificing their own interests.

The first great sacrificial act of self-effacement in the interests of the peace process was the SDLP's elevation of its chief political rival, Sinn Fein.

John Hume saw that this was the way to end IRA violence and to construct a political alternative to direct rule and the unattainable options of Irish unity or unionist majority rule.

The second was David Trimble's vote-losing adherence to the peace process and his protracted negotiations to secure IRA decommissioning.

The legacy of that long struggle was the shattered and reduced party inherited by Empey himself.

There are two ways of looking at politics.

Many see the peace process as a greater good which must be served at the expense of all other political considerations.

That argument had greater weight when the danger remained high that the IRA leadership would end its ceasefire and start killing and wrecking again to get its way.

But the principle appears to survive in the minds of many, perhaps most, that talking and agreeing must continue because these are good and bring us closer to reconciliation between estranged communities.

Many who endorse this way of thinking fail to see the lazy, unpolitical nature of this perspective.

The peace processors, on all sides, have long appealed to history. Tony Blair felt its hand on his shoulder. Sinn Fein often said that parties opposed to power-sharing were on the wrong side of it.

Bill Clinton often quoted Seamus Heaney's line which said that it might rhyme with hope. And we have been inspired by the experience of South Africa as a country which could rise above old animosities.

Sir Reg Empey has effectively said hooey to all that. He wants to play politics by the old rules, in which it is a competition between parties, all seeking to maximise their influence and their votes. He is right. Or, at least, if he is wrong, he has little alternative.

For what he is being asked to do, in the interests of peace and love and shamrock dancing in the sunlight among the orange lillies, is to serve as a rubber stamp for every decision of the coalition of Sinn Fein and the DUP.

He appears to have called a halt on old peace process thinking about what constitutes political maturity here.

The gamble is one of high stakes. He has already been widely reviled for it.

The easy assumption of many commentators is that he either cornered himself into a position he would rather have got out of, or that he just made a bad call like so many others he has made recently. Both interpretations are possibly true. Once the heavyweight moralisers started haranguing him, it was inevitably going to be more difficult for him to change. This may betray stupidity on the part of some of those who attacked him and deeper, more devious reasoning on the part of others.

Presumably, for instance, Shaun Woodward - the most unctuous secretary of state since Mo - is making calculations on how this impacts on Westminster politics.

And Empey has made bad calls: appearing some of the time to want to draw closer to the DUP at the instigation of the Orange Order and squandering his only MP by forming an alliance with the Tories. But this call was his and he had the right to make it and he is not a failure as a politician or a human being for putting party interest first; that is his job.

What is strange about Northern Irish politics is that, for 15 years, it has required party leaders not to do that job.

The SDLP, for instance, is now headless because it does not recognise that its key responsibility is to attack its rivals, Sinn Fein.

Reg Empey had an opportunity in this vote over the devolution of policing and justice to deliver a damaging blow to the DUP.

He launched a kick right at the party's groin and whether it connected with a nerve or not was not going to be entirely under his control, since he couldn't know what was under the trousers, but it was a neat kick.

With Peter Robinson depending on support of members of his party who had only weeks ago threatened to resign over the devolution of policing and justice, Empey was able to put the DUP under the kind of strain that might split it and force an election. And in such an election it is hard to conceive of how the DUP would have managed a coherent message.

That was the prize. It was in sight for a unionist leader with a killer instinct who knew his political job, which is to identify his enemy and attempt to destroy him.

That's politics. It's about time we saw more of it.

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