Belfast Telegraph

Could 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement spur DUP and Sinn Fein on to cut a deal?

The Democratic Unionist conference tomorrow will be a celebratory one... and a compromise to restore power-sharing may not be far off either

By Jon Tonge

The Democratic Unionist Party's annual conference in Belfast tomorrow should be lively. It follows one of the most remarkable periods in the party's 46-year history. For the first time, organisers have had to put up the "House Full" sign for an event which previously captured little outside attention.

It will be interesting to see what first-time attendees from the London media make of traditional conference favourites. Maybe they'll be entertained by former MP Willie McCrea belting out There'll Always Be An Ulster. Maybe not. One suspects that, post-RHI, last year's spontaneous conference stage hit, Arlene's On Fire, will not re-surface.

Delegates will gather in buoyant spirits, after a year for which the phrase "roller coaster ride" seems inadequate. It hardly began well. A fusion of Sinn Fein grievances, including RHI, Brexit, an Irish Language Act, legacy issues and same-sex marriage, crashed the devolved institutions.

Martin McGuinness' final act - his resignation as deputy First Minister - sacked Foster as First Minister. Foster dismissed Sinn Fein as "crocodiles", always coming back for more. The republican vote increased by 60,000 at the Assembly election in March, while the DUP lost 10 seats, leaving them only one ahead of Sinn Fein. Unionism lost its overall majority and a Sinn Fein First Minister seemed inevitable in future.

Yet, even March's apparent nadir confirmed the DUP's dominance among unionists. The UUP, flirting with the nationalist SDLP, failed to lay a glove on Foster's party. Three months later, DUP supremacy landed that record haul of 10 Westminster seats - and a pivotal position as monopoly supplier of friends to a beleaguered prime minister. Don't expect Arlene to even bother dismissing the UUP leader as she did last year. Other unionists are not the problem.

Nigel Dodds may have told the Conservative Party conference that, "this is a five-year deal" with the Tories, but it is inconceivable the DUP will not ask for more in due course. And why wouldn't they?

Brexit and the collapse of power-sharing ought to be the two items dominating the conference. The DUP's support for the Conservatives makes a hard Brexit and reinvigorated border much more probable.

An all-island customs union is mooted by the EU and the Irish government, the Opposition parties and some Conservatives, but is unsellable to the only party on the island with Westminster seats.

And DUP hostility to the EU is popular among their supporters. Seventy per cent opted to leave the EU in 2016 and the 2017 election survey evidence shows they haven't budged.

This DUP veto - and, of course, the small matter of £1bn - makes the DUP's Westminster strength more important than its Stormont vulnerability. The social conservatism of the DUP's membership can be upheld without devolved government.

It would be a brave direct rule minister - and we haven't got one - who tried to liberalise Northern Ireland's laws on marriage and abortion, given Conservative reliance upon the DUP at Westminster.

Yet, the collapse of Northern Ireland's political institutions does harm the DUP, particularly its leader. The DUP cannot restore devolution without concessions to Sinn Fein. This is awkward for Arlene Foster. She is leader of her party, but also jobless; the empress without political clothes.

Nigel Dodds - who in a rare period of functioning devolution declared it was "impossible for the DUP to be led from Westminster these days" - is effectively doing just that.

When Secretary of State James Brokenshire finally gets tough and imposes a real deadline (I'm stretching the political imagination, I concede), after which the salaries of Assembly members are stopped, 28 DUP MLAs lose their livelihoods, as will those in related jobs.

While the party conference will be gung-ho about not capitulating on an Irish Language Act, unemployment for dedicated party workers is a grim spectre.

A downgrading of the Assembly into a direct rule scrutiny body - with MLAs in place on reduced salaries - satisfies no one. That's why a DUP-Sinn Fein deal might yet be reached to restore power-sharing. The 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement looms in April, so Sinn Fein could sell a deal as a heroic restorative act and the DUP might make concessions on an Irish Language Act and not attempt, with the reduced Assembly size, to veto same-sex marriage via a petition of concern.

But there are strong disincentives - and not just that Sinn Fein's focus is on the Irish Republic. The official verdict on RHI is a long way off.

Republican caution over re-entering government in the meantime may be understandable.

Why rejoin the DUP in loveless matrimony for a few months, if the RHI inquiry then leads to calls for ex-ministerial heads to roll anyway? Whatever the inquiry's conclusion, one that hails the scheme as a wonderful model of DUP ministerial and special advisor decision-making seems improbable. Not that this will be a weekend for too much introspection. Expect instead a parade of the world's most valuable MPs, a celebration of the DUP's dream election result and maybe visits from a few Conservative friends. Just no crocodiles.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power (Oxford University Press)

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