James Forsyth

Bypassing the centre and trying to broker a peace of the extremes in Northern Ireland was always going to come back to haunt the government

Bypassing the centre and trying to broker a peace of the extremes in Northern Ireland was always going to come back to haunt the government
Text settings
Comments

The prospects of a deal in Northern Ireland seem to be receding. If the talks and, therefore the executive, do collapse, it will show how foolish it was of Jonathan Powell to try for this peace of the extremes. Powell decided that rather than spending hours negotiating with the UUP and the SDLP, the quicker way was to just go round them and deal directly with the extremes  on both ends of the spectrum (though, it is important to remember that however bigoted some DUP members are there is no moral equivalence with Sinn Fein). The theory was that these parties would have more room for manoeuvre as they could not be outflanked. But this has, unsurprisingly, not turned out to be true.

The DUP have made the abolition of the parades commission a condition of any agreement. But this is very hard for Sinn Fein to swallow as it would easily allow the dissidents to outflank them. Indeed, the anti-parade groups are already heavily influenced by those republicans who think that Adams and McGuinness have sold out. In hardcore Republican areas, Sinn Fein have already lost considerable support and, in some case, control of the streets to these people. To back down on parades, would be a massive blow to Sinn Fein’s ability to portray itself as the defenders of republican areas and provide an opening for the dissidents.

On the other side of the sectarian divide, the DUP are worried about the anti St Andrews agreement Traditional Unionist Voice. Even before the Robinsons’ affair, the TUV scored only five percent less than the DUP in the European elections. If the DUP compromise, they could lose even more support to the TUV.

As this goes on, the UUP and the SDLP are sitting around kicking their heels. They are, contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday agreement, outside the talks. If these talks and devolution collapse, the British government will be reaping what it sowed when it decided to cut out the centre.