If the DUP carries out its threat to crash the power-sharing Executive in its battle against the Protocol, a lot of key legislation could be dumped on the back burner until a new Executive is formed, whether that be short-term or long-term.
Many are speculating, is the DUP bluffing about pulling down the Assembly in a bid to appear more Right-wing than the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party led by North Antrim MLA Jim Allister?
Okay, it was only one opinion poll and it’s still a long way until the next scheduled Stormont election in May 2022, but that specific LucidTalk poll had the DUP trailing behind both the Ulster Unionists and the TUV.
Another key question still remains - even if the DUP isn’t bluffing and does collapse the Executive, and even if Northern Ireland does face a Stormont poll either before Christmas or as expected next May, will the electorate punish the DUP in the middle of a pandemic?
Or, is it a case the DUP will rely on ‘Project Fear’ again, namely, you need to vote the DUP back as the largest party in the Assembly otherwise Sinn Fein will take the First Minister’s post and trigger a border poll!
But setting aside DUP political sabre-rattling, is there any workable solution which could spike the DUP’s guns if bluff becomes reality?
The simple answer is - there is! And it worked. It’s reforming the Speaker’s Advisory Group at Stormont.
Let me take you back to historic 2002 to set the scene for potential 2022. With Direct Rule or even joint authority almost inevitable if the DUP does crash the Assembly this year, perhaps those parties committed to restoring devolution at Stormont should consider the workable solution which successfully laid the groundwork to the restoration of a devolved parliament following the previous lengthy period of suspension in 2002.
That was the year of the notorious ‘Stormontgate crisis’ when police raided Sinn Féin’s Stormont offices amid allegations of a republican spy ring at Parliament Buildings.
In October 2002, the then Labour Northern Ireland Secretary of State John Reid and Prime Minister Tony Blair decided to reimpose Direct Rule.
Ironically, there had been two one-day suspensions of the Assembly in 2001. There was also a temporary suspension of the Assembly from February to May 2000.
The 2002 imposition of Direct Rule lasted until 2007 when the late Rev Ian Paisley and the late Martin McGuinness implemented the power-sharing Stormont Executive, heralding in perhaps the most stable period of devolution in Northern Ireland. That followed the St Andrews Agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein in 2006.
If Direct Rule - even joint authority - no matter how it is dressed up politically, is coming down the tracks again for Northern Ireland, how can the process of devolution be restored? Put bluntly, the tactic is glaringly simple – bring back the Saggers to save Stormont!
Saggers? ‘What?’ I hear you say. ‘Is this some secret neo-Masonic cult dreamt up in secret meetings in the corridors of Westminster?’ you might ask.
The Saggers was a nickname given to a group of Assembly members who comprised the Speaker’s Advisory Group, which kept Stormont afloat when the Assembly went into suspension during the David Trimble (now Lord Trimble) era in 2002.
The Saggers were all MLAs from the Stormont Commission, which is the Assembly’s inner circle – often regarded as an unofficial inner parliament within the Assembly.
My late father, Rev Dr Robert Coulter MBE, was an Ulster Unionist MLA for North Antrim from 1998 until his retirement in 2011 and served on the Stormont Commission from its inception until his retirement.
He served, too, as the UUP ‘Sagger’ during that 2002-2007 Direct Rule period so this specific observation on the potential role of the Saggers in getting Stormont restored is penned from personal experiences of watching the Saggers in action.
These Sagger MLAs considered material and documents, then made a series of recommendations which were given to the Assembly Speaker, who in turn passed them to the Northern Ireland Secretary. The Saggers team also linked up with very senior Northern Ireland civil servants.
It sounded on paper like a complicated system, but in practice it worked smoothly and paved the foundations for the return of devolution following that St Andrews Agreement of 2006.
Tactically, it kept the Stormont project alive and prevented the Assembly from being dumped into mothballs like its original 1972 predecessor. Even Sinn Féin gave support to the Saggers’ work. Indeed, all parties represented on the Stormont Commission worked together very effectively on the Saggers project.
That’s why it is now so vital the Saggers be re-activated if the current Northern Ireland Secretary is forced to formally suspend Stormont again as relations between Sinn Féin and its DUP partner hit rock bottom over the Protocol.
However, the cynic may be forgiven for asking, if the Saggers were so effective in creating a transition from Direct Rule back to devolution, why was it not on the political agenda following the collapse of Stormont yet again in January 2017 for the guts of three years?
What pundits and the public now have to realise is that the DUP faces some very difficult policy and potentially electorally damaging decisions regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol, an Irish Language Act and legacy issues.
As a supposedly disciplined political movement, Sinn Féin is much more mature at bringing its voter base with it when difficult decisions have had to be made in the past, such as entering a power-sharing partitionist parliament at Stormont, and changing party rules so that it could potentially enter any future coalition government at Leinster House.
The DUP, as the supposed ‘main party’ within the pro-Union community, does not enjoy the same voter discipline if LucidTalk findings are to be taken as gospel.
How would the Christian Church vote be affected if the DUP ever agreed policy-wise to same-sex marriage, or a more liberal approach to abortion?
How would the Loyal Orders, such as the Orange, Black and Apprentice Boys, react if the DUP ever agreed to a stand-alone Irish Language Act given the Orange’s very public opposition to such an Act?
The DUP publicly may wish to see a restoration of the devolved institutions if leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson carried out his party’s threat to collapse Stormont “within weeks”, but Direct Rule from Westminster would avoid the party having to take some potentially electorally damaging decisions. Such painful decisions could be ‘blamed’ on those nasty Tories in London!
If the Westminster Parliament voted to introduce an Irish Language Act to Northern Ireland and refused to scrap or amend the Protocol, the DUP could spin the view that it was London which brought these measures in, not a Stormont Executive - and certainly not the DUP.
Like the Biblical Pontius Pilate, the DUP could wash its hands of London’s edicts.
It must not be overlooked that current DUP boss Sir Jeffrey Donaldson cut his political teeth in the Ulster Unionist Party with mentors Enoch Powell (the former South Down MP) and Sir James Molyneaux (the former UUP leader and Lagan Valley MP whom Sir Jeffrey succeeded).
Both Powell and Molyneaux were committed integrationists who believed that power should rest with Westminster, so Sir Jeffrey - whom I have known personally since our days in the UUP’s youth wing, the Young Unionists, in the 1980s - is very astute when it comes to knowing how Westminster operates.
Okay, I’m not a mind reader, but I got both a clear understanding of what makes Jeffrey Donaldson tick politically during his time in the UUP, and I know with working with my late dad that the Speaker’s Advisory Group worked politically, too. So I hope I’m penning this article from a position of experience and strength.
Privately, a period of Direct Rule would allow the DUP to side-step any tricky pieces of legislation for the party. Sinn Féin also needs to realise it needs to retain Stormont if it wants to become a minority government partner in the next Dáil.
Okay, Sinn Fein made the mistake of not running enough candidates in the previous Dail General Election and was nudged out of government by an historic coalition of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
But if Sinn Féin wants to convince the Southern Irish electorate that it has the maturity to run the Republic as part of a coalition government, then what better way to prove this to key floating voters than by agreeing to bring back Stormont, even if the DUP crashes the Executive.
The republican movement has finally realised that the only route to Irish unity lies through Dublin, not Belfast or London.
The DUP isn’t privately worried by a Stormont collapse as its MPs take their Westminster seats so they can do deals with British Prime Minister Boris Johnston.
The DUP view on Sinn Féin MPs is simple as it is blunt – as Sinn Féin still operates its 1905 abstentionist policy on Commons seats, a dead fly would have more influence in the Commons chamber votes.
Sinn Féin has a massive image stereotype to overcome if Dublin TD Mary Lou McDonald is to emerge as Tánaiste after any future Southern general election.
Banging the anti-austerity drum may get Sinn Féin a few extra TDs and valuable points in the opinion polls, but that won’t necessarily propel Ms McDonald into that office.
But if Sinn Féin can save Stormont using the Saggers, it will help convince Southern voters the party can be trusted in government in the Republic as well.
And what a mountain Sinn Féin has to climb to get those voters to move on from the past. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil spin doctors only need to pose the following blunt questions:
- Would you vote for a party which snubbed thousands of republicans who went off to fight Kaiser Bill in 1914?
- Would you vote for a party which organised the doomed Easter Rising in Dublin while those thousands of republicans were being slaughtered in the trenches?
- Would you vote for a party which brought the wrath of the Black and Tans upon the Irish people in the War of Independence?
- Would you vote for a party which didn’t accept the Treaty and condemned the island to months of slaughter as republican butchered republican?
- Would you vote for a party which pussy-footed with Hitler’s Nazi scum during the Second World War?
If Sinn Féin wants the keys to the Tánaiste’s office, it must first use the Saggers to unlock the looming Stormont logjam over the Protocol. It worked in 2007; it can work again in 2021 or 2022 if the DUP puts the boot into Stormont, but it may require a short, sharp dose of Direct Rule as an interim political remedy.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.