Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Deal a far from perfect outcome for unionists but it's probably the least worst option

After all the discussions and negotiations, who will be happiest?

Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

We may never know the full story of what happened in February 2018 when the DUP seemed on the brink of closing a deal with Sinn Fein and then took 'frit'.

What did become clear was that key figures in the party and in the grassroots hadn't been fully briefed or prepared and got it into their heads, when it was announced that the Prime Minister and Taoiseach were on their way for a photo-op, that the party was being bounced into a bad deal.

In the three days following the announcement of a political breakthrough the main strands of unionism, loyalism and the Orange Order made clear their very serious concerns and the deal was scuppered.

This time the DUP leadership took no chances. Within minutes of Julian Smith and Simon Coveney releasing details of the agreement Arlene Foster issued a statement of support; the sort of statement a leader only releases when they know that all the key players in the party are briefed and on board.

She had obviously listened to the advice of Peter Robinson in a speech last year, when he stressed the importance of a leader taking possession of a deal and selling it hard and fast before others get a chance to begin the unravelling process.

The key to successfully selling this deal is in reassuring unionists - and not just those in her own party - that it does them no harm.

In other words: it doesn't undermine the Union; it doesn't undermine the unionist identity in Northern Ireland; it doesn't place them in a worse position than they are; it doesn't push open any doors to Irish unity, and it doesn't damage unionism politically, electorally or psychologically.

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Her main problem is that most unionists have enormous difficulty with anything that could be described as an Irish Language Act.

Fair enough, there is an argument that the deal doesn't contain a standalone Act, but nor is there any guarantee that something which would be an Act in everything but name wouldn't appear in some form.

Yet she can also make the argument that the DUP would have more control of progress (and a veto too) in an Assembly than under a lengthy period of direct rule, particularly under Boris Johnson.

It was an issue which was never going to go away, so her calculation had to be how best to have some sort of influence over and input to its legislative progress.

Her choice is a risky one, but probably better than the alternative choices. The Orange Order issued a statement setting out its concerns but, crucially, stopped short of suggesting that the DUP should reject the deal in its entirety.

And while she can expect continuing flak from the TUV and some elements of loyalism, I sense she is willing to face them down.

And while the UUP may not be happy with the Irish language aspects, it too is unlikely to reject the entire deal.

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UUP

The other calculations Foster had to make were about the risks of an early election in the event of no deal, and the consequences of a possibly lengthy period of direct rule if an election didn't change the dynamics.

I think the DUP would remain the largest party if there were an election, but the margins are tight and a continuing surge for Alliance might have lost her a couple of seats and with it the keys to the First Minister's office.

With Northern Ireland's centenary just 18 months away the DUP wouldn't relish a Sinn Fein First Minister in situ.

The DUP also needs a powerbase and platform to replace the one it has just lost in Westminster.

No point in being the biggest party in Northern Ireland if you can't exercise power and influence over events locally. And it would be a very brave unionist party which would prefer direct rule from the present House of Commons and Prime Minister than a role in a local Executive and the chance to help steer events as the impact of the withdrawal agreement and the border in the Irish Sea begins to unfold.

The truth is that there is no ideal position for the DUP or unionism right now. Every position comes with enormous challenges. This deal is far from perfect, yet it is probably the least worst of the options available.

Alex Kane is a political commentator

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