Opinion

Deal or no deal: Just put us out of our misery, Jeffrey – Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson with party colleagues Gavin Robinson and Emma Little-Pengelly after a meeting with Taoiseach Micheal Martin
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson with party colleagues Gavin Robinson and Emma Little-Pengelly after a meeting with Taoiseach Micheal Martin Sir Jeffrey Donaldson with party colleagues Gavin Robinson and Emma Little-Pengelly after a meeting with Taoiseach Micheal Martin

THE fevered pace of events right now means that in the gap between writing this, on Wednesday afternoon, and it being published, on Friday morning, everything could have changed.

The front-page headline of Wednesday’s Irish News – Robinson intervention points to Stormont breakthrough – may turn out to be a false dawn. Who knows? We’ve been at this brink a number of times since Paul Givan stepped down as First Minister in February 2023 and we may well return to it a few more times before we know, one way or the other, if devolution is salvageable.

My instincts remain, as they have since the Windsor Framework was voted through parliament in March, that a deal is more likely than not. Even if it means the DUP accepting the fact that the framework will continue to be implemented. Even if it means that some of its seven red-line tests have not been met. Even if it means the resignation of a handful of DUP ‘names’.

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It is now clear that Jeffrey Donaldson and his negotiating team (who have played their cards pretty close to their chests) know – and seem to have accepted – 90% of the deal he will have to bring to his officer team and party executive. The last 10% seems to be at the ‘refining’ stage and he still has hopes that a surprise bonus remains a possibility.

The other key factor is that there is an acceptance across the party that the real choice now is not about the framework as such (it will be implemented no matter what decision the DUP takes) but whether DUP political/electoral interests are best served by imperfect devolution or some weird, hybrid form of direct rule which would make life even more difficult for it than it has been since the NI Protocol appeared in October 2019.

Robinson’s intervention was significant. He has made a virtue of not being a back-seat driver since he stepped down as leader, ensuring that his infrequent commentary attracts attention. He has always been one of the DUP’s shrewdest operators: indeed, I don’t think the Paisley/McGuinness deal in 2007 would have been possible without him. And he also ensured that the show stayed on the road after Paisley was toppled and he built his own very effective personal and political relationship with McGuinness between 2008-2015.

Peter Robinson's intervention is significant as Sir Jeffrey Donaldson continues his negotiations with the British government
Peter Robinson's intervention is significant as Sir Jeffrey Donaldson continues his negotiations with the British government Peter Robinson's intervention is significant as Sir Jeffrey Donaldson continues his negotiations with the British government

My own hunch is that had he been leader in 2017 he would have approached the Conservatives very differently and I really can’t imagine him allowing the party to have been sucked into the vortex of madness that allowed the DUP to be serially shafted by Johnson and the ERG.

He’s a man who always preferred to play the long game, avoid cul-de-sacs, collect options and build-in wriggle room during negotiations. More important, he knew that successful negotiations are always built on pragmatism and the willingness to row back when the waters of opposition reach tidal levels.

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Whether his intervention is part of a broader choreography involving Donaldson and maybe even UK government sources, I don’t know. But I do know that it has a purpose: and that purpose is to bolster Donaldson and bring a torturous process to an end.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson with deputy leader Gavin Robinson and former leader Edwin Poots. PICTURE: HUGH RUSSELL
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson with deputy leader Gavin Robinson and former leader Edwin Poots. PICTURE: HUGH RUSSELL DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson with deputy leader Gavin Robinson and former leader Edwin Poots. PICTURE: HUGH RUSSELL

If these talks go into the new year they will get bogged down in general election rigmarole and nobody in Westminster is going to bother about trying to please the DUP. And, irrespective of the election result, I don’t think Sunak or Starmer will have the DUP anywhere near the top of their in-tray agenda.

So, the deal is being pushed to the make-or-break stage. That is no bad thing. It has been crippling politics and governance for almost two years and we could end up with another assembly election early in 2024, with nobody sure whether it would result in an executive, either.

To paraphrase somebody or other, it is just bat-poop crazy. Just put us out of our misery.