David Blackburn

The demographics of power-sharing

The demographics of power-sharing
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The union of irreconcilables was unlikely to last: power-sharing in Northern Ireland is on the verge of collapse. Where once Blair and Ahern would descend on Stormont as a couple of charismatics, today Gordon Brown and Brian Cowan face an enormous and unenviable task. They deserve support: both governments have been courageous in their approach to Northern Ireland, and the Tories were right to offer unconditional support.

In which case, why did the umbrella of unionists, including the Tories’ Northern Ireland spokesman Owen Paterson, convene at the Marquis of Salisbury’s house in secret? A mixture of the furtive and the preposterous, one expected reports of Richard Hannay emerging from behind a curtain and fixing his Colt on Peter Robinson. For all their supposed media savviness, the Tories are frequently embroiled in the most bizarre circumstances; needless to say, Republican sympathisers are livid at such suspicious behaviour.

I suspect that the DUP are the villains of the piece. In 2007, the DUP won 36 seats to Sinn Fein’s 28. Despite Mrs Robinson’s best efforts, and indeed perhaps because of them, it is possible that Sinn Fein will be the majority party for the first time. That demographic shift would explain why the unionist cause sought the hospitality of the Marquis of Salisbury, an avowed unionist of the Major era, and attempted to find a unilateral course of action. Judging by what has followed, and the Tory/Ulster Unionist alliance’s determination to contest every Northern Irish seat, it is clear that no such accord was forthcoming. The Tories may think in terms of moving Ulster politics beyond sectarian interests, the DUP do not.

Knowing that the DUP is on the cusp of succumbing to the rhythm method, Robinson has made himself the obstacle to power-sharing. He has procrastinated over devolved policing for nearly three years – finance, regulation, marching rights; he has used every possible pretext to defer to Whitehall. Now it seems likely that Sinn Fein’s patience is exhausted. The possible implications are obvious.