Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Why making pantomime villains of the DUP won't bring a Christmas Day Agreement any closer

Julian Smith doesn't wrap himself in glory by singling out unionists for criticism - however much he yearns for a present to give his boss, says Eilis O'Hanlon

DUP leader Arlene Foster with Gavin Robinson and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson after talks with Secretary of State Julian Smith last Monday
DUP leader Arlene Foster with Gavin Robinson and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson after talks with Secretary of State Julian Smith last Monday
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Every panto season needs a villain, and this Christmas the role appears to have been handed to the DUP.

If they're honest, most observers probably expected all-party talks to continue behind the scenes for a few weeks before producing any great moments of drama.

The curtain had barely gone up on negotiations to restore Stormont before it was announced that one party was already spoiling the festive cheer.

Who was the dog in the manger?

When asked, the Secretary of State said that it was the DUP, adding that he was "deeply disappointed" and calling on them to "reflect" on their stance, like a schoolmaster ticking off a naughty child.

The DUP's explanation for not signing up to what everyone else was apparently happy with may be honest or it may be spin, but on paper it's not unreasonable.

Considering the succession of problems that have arisen since Stormont was pulled down unnecessarily three years ago, making sure that it can't be pulled down again on a similarly convenient pretext every time Sinn Fein sees an opportunity for electoral gain isn't an unreasonable demand.

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The problem for the DUP is that they now have so few friends in politics that no one is willing to put their neck on the line to defend them. Why should they?

Arlene Foster and her colleagues at the helm of the party seem to be the only people in Ireland or Britain who didn't foresee the danger that Brexit presented to the Union.

For the past couple of years since the referendum they've flirted with constitutional chaos in ways that are baffling to those sympathetic to the integrity of the UK, and have arrogantly brushed aside friendly advice that they were making a historic misjudgment.

In many ways they had this coming. The isolation that they're experiencing is entirely self-inflicted. What's more, it should have been obvious to them going into these talks that whoever was seen to be putting up obstacles to progress would be promptly dressed up as the villain of the piece and shoved centre stage for the waiting audience to hiss at.

Sinn Fein were determined that it wouldn't be them. The DUP, less cannily, fell into the trap, in all likelihood because they're still shell-shocked from the general election.

Sinn Fein had one big victory in North Belfast to mask the disappointment of a vote share which fell in every single other constituency.

The DUP had nothing to take away from their latest battering at the polls. They not only lost seats, but all their influence over the Tories in Westminster as well, as Boris Johnson secured a comprehensive DUP-proof majority.

The withdrawal agreement that unionists hate so much has already passed through the House of Commons. Nothing can stop Brexit this late in the day short of an alien invasion.

Given the scale of that succession of humiliating defeats, the DUP probably needed a little time to process what had happened and what to do next.

In the event they were not to be given any space to grieve in private.

Parties in a far stronger position wanted to get talks done and dusted by Christmas, before moving into 2020 ready to consolidate the gains.

There's nothing wrong with that. Victors have no obligation to be magnanimous.

But the Secretary of State should have been more aware of the danger of rushing the DUP into a hasty post-election settlement, and more willing to foster an atmosphere in which they could be won round.

With nationalists showing more unity than ever, it would have befitted a minister representing the Conservative and so-called Unionist Party to be more magnanimous, instead of petulantly naming and shaming the DUP within days of talks getting under way.

Julian Smith hasn't uttered one peep of criticism of republicans, when they're the very reason why talks on restoring Stormont are having to be held at all. It's bad enough Mary Lou McDonald is mouthing the language of compromise as if her party had nothing to do with wasting the last three years.

For a minister of the Crown to effectively give her the cover to do so adds insult to injury.

It could be that Julian Smith wanted a Christmas deal for symbolic reasons - it being the season of peace on Earth and goodwill to men and all that - just as much more difficult talks in 1998 were concluded in time to call it the Good Friday Agreement.

It might even be that Smith is a man in a hurry, eager to clock up a win of his own to save his job in the expected Cabinet reshuffle in the new year. Successfully concluding talks faster than Usain Bolt can run the 100 metres would have shown his boss in Downing Street that he should at least keep his job, or better still from an ambitious minister's perspective, get a promotion.

The Irish Government, which hasn't had a good few months either, was equally keen to finalise a deal and readily joined in by piling blame on the DUP.

There would have been nothing wrong with both London and Dublin issuing one of their usual bland holding statements to get through the next couple of weeks without provoking another crisis of trust.

People in Northern Ireland are justifiably fed up with being the one place on these islands with no government, and cannot be expected to have endless patience for pettifogging discussions about petitions of concern and the like.

But the real question is whether it actually matters that much which side of Christmas Day an agreement is reached.

In truth, it surely doesn't.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Northern Ireland is now irrelevant. The UK will leave the EU at the end of January, and the chances of the Prime Minister needing the support of the DUP, or anyone else, for the foreseeable future at Westminster is remote.

The only place where local politicians can hope to wield influence in the next five years - and, most likely, much longer - is Stormont, so it's important to get it right. There only seem to be a few paragraphs of contention still to finesse.

Another week spent dotting the Is and crossing the Ts won't hurt. If, as the new year inches along, the DUP still won't agree a deal, then they will deserve all the criticism they get. This really is the last chance saloon. There's nowhere left to go.

For now, what better time is there to show some generosity than at Christmas?

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