Opinion

The DUP will be digging escape tunnels already

DUP First Minister Peter Robinson 

So, who’d have thunk it? After all the assorted orchestrated crises of the past few years it turns out to be Mike Nesbitt—the man most of us dismissed out of hand when he became leader—who throws the biggest, heaviest spanner into the works. And make no mistake; this is a spanner with the potential to bring down the Executive. I’ve been pretty sanguine of late about the other so-called ‘threats’ to the institutions, arguing that the right mixture of fudge, humbug and naked hypocrisy would keep the jarring parts glued together.

But this is different. Peter Robinson is now naked in the Executive: and it’s not a pretty sight. His internal critics—and there are more of them than he knows—will be spooked by Nesbitt’s decision. For the first time in a generation the UUP has outflanked the DUP and is now appealing to those unhappy with Robinson, to those who agree with the TUV but don’t regard it as big enough to challenge the DUP, to those who defected to the DUP because they regarded Trimble and Empey as weak and to those who now think that the UUP may be a coherent alternative to the DUP.

Yet this is still a big risk for Nesbitt. If there’s an early election I imagine that Sinn Féin will play the ‘poor-us-everyone-is-ganging-up against-us’ card, hoping that five unionist parties (DUP/UUP/PUP/TUV/Ukip) slugging it out for seats will shred their vote, damage the DUP and allow McGuinness to stroll into the First Minister’s office. By the way, if that does happen you can be pretty sure that neither the DUP nor UUP leader will agree to take up residence in McGuinness’s old office.

Sinn Féin isn’t going to give Nesbitt the ‘clarity’ he claims to need. They’re not going to do any favours for Robinson, either. Why should they? They allowed Trimble to swing in the wind and I suspect they’ll do the same to Robinson now, because they reckon that he’s preparing his personal exit strategy.

Danny Morrison and I did a couple of interviews together yesterday and he thinks the DUP will remain in the Executive. I don’t. Most of the DUP’s MLAs can’t stand their Sinn Féin counterparts and the grassroots that has stuck with the party since the early days hate McGuinness. It would strike me as extraordinary if Robinson was able to persuade his party to remain as the only unionists in the Executive. They’ll be digging the escape tunnel right now.

And once the DUP withdraws that’s it. The Executive collapses, leaving three options: suspension and a new round of negotiations; early elections; or the reintroduction of direct rule. At this point suspension looks the most likely option, so batten down the hatches and prepare to welcome a doddery old statesman from America in the run-up to Christmas.

Sinn Féin has already accused Nesbitt of hypocrisy and of "party political opportunism." He’s not going to care about that. He has, I think, caught the mood of unionist voters and unsettled the DUP. He has made life much more difficult for Peter Robinson, who has watched his dream of becoming the Carson of the 21st century swirl down the plughole. Mike Nesbitt is a happy man today: a man who sniffs more electoral victories. As I said earlier, who’d have thunk it?

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