I heard Sammy Wilson on RTÉ radio about an hour ago and he sounded very reasonable. The DUP, he told the listeners, were in agreement with Sinn Féin about their proposal for a public inquiry. It really did seem to match what the DUP themselves wanted. So it would be a pity if Sinn Féin were so politically motivated that they precipitated an election on the minor point of the First Minister stepping aside during the first four weeks of such an inquiry. Was this the same Sammy Wilson who used to talk about the Irish language as leprechaun linguistics? Hard to believe, Virginia, but yes, it was.
The DUP are finding a number of things hard to get their heads around. One is that Sinn Féin’s four-week step-aside proposal is a compromise. The UUP wants Arlene Foster to resign, quit her post, stop leading the DUP, full stop. The SDLP want a public inquiry, and while that inquiry is being conducted, Arlene Foster will go on gardening leave “without prejudice”. But she will have to step aside until the full inquiry concludes.
Sinn Féin’s position is, in contrast, is excessively accommodating. No, let me take that back. It’s accommodating because it’s not nuclear: it’s allowing the DUP and its leader some degree of compromise. In ways it reminds me of the stance of Sinn Féin in Belfast City Hall over the flags dispute (remember that? And how it worked out in the end?). The Shinners wanted either the flying of the Union flag and the Irish tricolour, or the flying of no flags at all. They accepted eventually the flying of the Union flag on the designated days – clearly a compromise. The DUP fought the compromise every inch of the way, encouraged mass demonstrations which soon degenerated into violence. And in the end the designated-days decision had to be accepted.
Likewise in the matter of Arlene and the Cash-for Ash scheme. If it had been my decision, I would have pushed for the SDLP solution: Arlene to stand aside until the investigation was completed. That’s normal procedure. Sinn Féin have opted for the bare minimum, leaving Arlene a face-saving option and leaving the way clear for Sinn Féin to go on working alongside the DUP in the future.
The DUP have tossed these terms aside with contempt. They won’t be told what to do by Sinn Féin – no, seriously. The mild-mannered Simon Hamilton repeated that self-same sound-bite this morning again: the DUP won’t be taking instruction from Sinn Féin.
It reminds me, as I say, of the flag dispute. It also reminds me of a bully who’s used to having his/her way, who has been successful in cowing any opposition to his/her wishes, has brazened out any situation in which they find themselves. Then one day, they run up against a situation where, instead of their victim crumpling or fleeing, they stand their ground. A totally new experience for the bully. Never encountered this before. Blustering hasn’t worked. Pretending to be sweetly reasonable hasn’t worked. Dia ár sabháil! (That’s leprechaun for ‘God save us!’) What do we do now? …Oh look. Justice Minister Claire Sugden has come up with the answer. Arlene should stay in post, but if in four weeks’ time the preliminary report finds her guilty of misconduct or incompetence, she should step aside.
Brilliant, Claire. It’s like postponing the arrest of a suspect until their case has been decided in court and a verdict delivered. Deeply original thinking.
Ever thought of joining a bigger party, Claire?