Belfast Telegraph

Tom Kelly: DUP now paying price for saying 'no' once too often

Locked gates at Stormont (Niall Carson/PA)
Locked gates at Stormont (Niall Carson/PA)

By Tom Kelly

The 1,000 days without an Executive or an Assembly came and went with hardly a flutter of an eyelid.

Hundreds of hardy souls lined the drive of Stormont in the rain to show a defiance of which Carson would have been proud.

The other 1,870,000 members of the public were either washing their hair or went to B&Q.

Stormont isn't quite dead but it is certainly on life support.

So have recent events at Westminster made the return of Stormont any more or less likely? Before answering that, let us reflect on what has happened.

The Prime Minister is a man in a hurry. He wants to get Brexit done. The DUP was never going to be allowed to stand in the way. He is also a fair weather friend.

Johnson exudes bonhomie to everyone. It is neither personal or sincere. 

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So all those rib tickler jokes and hugs at the DUP conference last year meant absolutely nothing. Like Cameron before him, Johnson would even hug a hoodie.  

And whilst Boris is synonymous with Brexit - he isn't all about Brexit.

Boris and those around him see Johnson as a long term project.

In the vice-like grip of right-wingers Boris wants his premiership to be as transformative as that of Margaret Thatcher. And most likely equally divisive and destructive.

So Project Boris needs a general election as soon as possible and his is gifted in his opposition.

The caveat is that Theresa May also had a healthy lead over Corbyn until she went to the polls.

To get Project Boris off the ground, a Brexit deal was politically crucial.

Around 95% of the deal done this week was already in Mrs May's ill-fated Withdrawal Agreement.

The hated backstop - not that many British politicians actually understood it - is gone only to be replaced with a sort of Northern Ireland bespoke backstop.

It is hugely complicated but no one is sweating over the small print. The deal is done. No one wants more changes. European exasperation is palpable and British patience is worn thin.

The big difference in what has happened at Westminster is that the Johnson/Cummings axis is not May/Liddington.

May was stubborn but never selfish. Liddington was the epitome of fairness and etiquette. 

Johnson on the other hand is ambitious and totally self-absorbed. May would lay her life down in the service of her country. Johnson would politically speaking lay down the lives of friends to further his career.

Cummings is a political street fighter. Gouging, nipping and kicking are all permissible in his world without rules.

Mrs May displayed incredible generosity - even deference - to the DUP. In that regard she was a fool. She was like a goldfish sharing her bowl with piranhas. A chicken trying to hitch a lift on one of those ubiquitous crocodiles.

Johnson on the other hand took a route more familiar to scholars of bruiser politics. First flatter, then bribe, then bully and if all that fails drop from a high height.

Now the DUP has switched sides and is joining the other Opposition parties. Problem is, outside of the parliamentary eccentrics and mavericks, the DUP is practically friendless in Westminster.

Their hectoring and bullyboy tactics over the past three years make them displaced. They have managed to offend just about everyone.

There is no skill in saying No but it is the only skill the DUP has perfected. Nor do they do deadlines although in realpolitik deadlines happen.

In their attitude to Brexit they must be the only elected representatives in the world who actually are working towards making their citizens less well off. Less well off but more British in their nutty Orangeville village.

One DUP MP actually said - why should Northern Ireland have a competitive advantage that Scotland can't have? Doh?

So Brexit done, will the conditions now exist for Stormont to return? Well, yes and no. The toxicity of the Brexit debate, which at times descended into raw sectarianism, should abate given time.

That said, the lunatics on the loyalist fringes will ramp up the 'not an inch' mentality to ensure the DUP don't kiss and make up too soon with Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein, for their part, could be generous and give some leeway.

But one senses they simply don't trust Arlene Foster. Add into the mix, a general election is at best only months away. The bear-pit of NI elections is hardly conducive to cordial inter-party relations.

If the DUP lose any seats at the Westminster elections and the imminent RHI is damning of the leader, Arlene Foster's stewardship of the DUP may come to an end.

In that case Sinn Fein may want to see who succeeds her before continuing with negotiations.

The farcical sitting of Monday's zombie Assembly may just remind all the parties what they have been missing. Whether or not that whets the appetite of the general public for a return of a functioning Assembly is an entirely different matter.

Tom Kelly is a columnist and commentator

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