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A bird in the hand

Fair Deal
18 June 2008

Fair Deal (Belfast, Slugger O’Toole): In the battle for 42 days and courting DUP votes, Gordon Brown chalked up a success (of sorts) with the DUP playing the reluctant bride to the very end but what were the motivations?

First, it is a simple and somewhat harsh fact of Westminster politics that the votes of a smaller party will never be sought on an uncontroversial measure. Despite the implication of some commentary, this was a UK wide law not a West Lothian situation.Notably, Sir Hugh Orde, Northern Ireland’s chief constable was in favour and the package of safeguards made it more palatable too. Also the DUP has generally taken firm positions on law and order legislation. DUP support for the measure cannot be considered a bolt from the blue.

The politics of the peace process also intervened. Sinn Fein’s devolution tantrum was particularly ill-timed just a matter of days before Brown faced a tight parliamentary vote. Peter Robinson wants to engender a feel-good factor in the Unionist community and being seen to have an influence at Westminster does just that as does a perceived out-manoeuvring of Sinn Fein. The DUP even got the unexpected bonus of the UUP Westminster team dividing on the issue (Slyvia Hermon MP voted for 42 days while a number of UUP peers have expressed opposition).

Was there a deal? While the narrative to the contrary has gained full-blown acceptance there probably wasn’t. The situation is more no deal today but the expectation of a deal tomorrow. This was certainly the tone of a Gregory Campbell’s interview on a NI politics show.

Has it made Unionism more unpalatable to a mainland audience? Whatever, the political and media reaction, this is a measure popular with a substantial majority of the UK public.

As for Conservative frustrations, with continuing double digit poll leads and continuing negative economic news they can rest easy. Also 42 days is not without sympathy in the Conservative Party or among its MPs. The lukewarm to hostile Conservative response to the stand of David Davis also brings into question the depth of Tory opposition.

As for the ‘deal tomorrow’, the rumour mill has identified a range of issues on the DUP’s shopping list. However, the individual items are not what are significant, it is their aims. Robinson and the DUP are focused on making devolution a success and developing the private sector to reduce Northern Ireland’s dependency on the subvention.These aims are ultimately ones the Conservatives and Lib Dems share even if the diverge on DUP tactics to achieve them.

If the Conservatives wish to entice the DUP away from Labour to help speed the government’s downfall then it is the issues above they should address. Their policy cupboard is by no means bare - for example their desire to replace Barnett.Talk of vague good-will or ill-will will be insufficient.It seems the DUP prefer a bird in the hand. Maybe the Tories can entice them with a better bird?

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