Following the unprecedented success of both the DUP and Sinn Fein in the 2003 assembly elections and the subsequent shift in electoral control, which resulted, it appeared that the NI assembly would be subjected to political stalemate and the very future of the assembly itself called into question.
Such an alarming situation has developed due to the electoral success of both these parties who consistently throughout the treacherous history of Northern Ireland politics have proved to be the two most polarised of parties.
Both party’s conflicting policy differences and their varying approach to the Good Friday Agreement has resulted in a virtual deadlock. For the purpose of this essay I must now highlight and indeed examine in detail the differences shared by both the DUP and Sinn Fein towards the Good Friday Agreement.
To begin with, I will analyse the primary policies of the DUP and the party’s approach to the GFA.
The DUP who were once the unquestionable opponent of the NI executive and the Good Friday Agreement have been forced to compromise and interact to a greater extent in the GFA due to its recent electoral success. The DUP can no longer simply be the steadfast antagonist of the GFA but must now be more accommodating and open to concession.
The DUP is and indeed maintains that it has always been an Anti-agreement party and a staunch opponent of Sinn Fein in government. Indeed due to this very fact the DUP refused to even take part in the talks leading up to the Good Friday Agreement because Sinn Fein was involved. Furthermore the party refuses to take part in the NI executive because Sinn Fein holds two seats in this, the highest echelon of NI government. The DUP claim that Sinn Fein are simply the political wing of the IRA and therefore will not commit themselves to seating on the cabinet of NI with terrorists. The only condition, they claim, which will alter their position is if the IRA transparently and verifiably decommissions all their weapons and secondly, the IRA abandons its paramilitary path and disbands. The DUP have always required “Decommissioning before Devolution”.
A further primary example of the DUP’s inability to engage completely in the GFA is the party’s continual refusal to participate to any degree with the North South Ministerial Council, because they believe the Republic Of Ireland should have no direct say in the affairs of NI.
Although these key policies have for long been the mainstay of DUP politics there are however several inconsistencies to the DUP approach.
The DUP have of course stood in the Assembly elections both in 1998 and in 2003.Moreover they took their seats in the NI assembly with Sinn Fein in attendance. The reason the DUP cite for their ability to sit in the assembly but not the executive is that they acknowledge the electoral endorsement of Sinn Fein by the electorate of NI and therefore must concede to Sinn Fein’s democratic position and rite to sit on the assembly as a result. The DUP do not however recognise Sinn Fein’s entitlement to a seat on the executive, which is, as explained the governing cabinet of NI.
Secondly the DUP sits on the assembly committees with Sinn Fein present. This fact has drawn criticism of the DUP from both, sectors of the media and indeed from other political parties, who claim that the DUP plays to the media and its electorate. It is refuted that during assembly debates and other governmental events the DUP tries to distance itself from becoming involved in matters connected with Sinn Fein and tries its utmost to show its electorate that it is opposing Sinn Fein and yet all the while, behind closed doors, the DUP Ministers and MLA’s were actively engaged in the process of devolved government and by all accounts worked competently and indeed successfully with Sinn Fein.
The DUP despite the fact that it refuses to participate directly with the NI executive has nevertheless nominated members of its party to positions on the Executive. Although Peter Robinson was nominated and accepted as Minister for Regional Development and Nigel Dodds became Minister for Social Development they do not sit in the executive itself and initially boycotted meetings of the Executive as part of an on-going strategy of undermining the GFA from within.
Yet the DUP knew that self-imposed exclusion from the executive entirely would render it weaker and less effective in influencing decisions of devolved government in NI. Therefore the party’s strategy become one, that while the NI assembly and Executive existed it would exclude itself from it, but it would work to bring about its downfall.
Also the DUP have been highly critical of David Trimble and his party’s involvement in the GFA. The DUP has continually called for the UUP to pull out of the Executive and has accused to UUP of “Selling Out” the Union with Britain.
The DUP’s strategy and continued party unity brought it great success in the November 2003 Assembly elections. The DUP increased its number of Assembly seats by 10 (from 20 to 20) making it the largest party in the Assembly. While this undeniably impressive success, was viewed by many as a doomsday scenario, continued reassurances from both the British and Irish governments that talks would continue to resolve devolved government to NI went some way to restore confidence in the GFA. Although the DUP’s bargaining position was fortified by its electoral success the DUP recognised that in the future it would have to negotiate and compromise in order to consolidate its position as the leading party in NI.
Sinn Fein (SF) on the other hand, In signing up to the GFA, like the other pro-agreement parties had accepted from the outset the inevitable need for compromise. For SF this meant the inevitability of decommissioning. It played the politics of negotiation, acknowledging that while decommissioning would take place, it would be a process, which it would control rather than the British government.
During the period between the signing of the GFA and actual decommission (November 2001) the positions Of the DUP and SF had shifted. Both parties had entered the devolved institutions under different pretexts: for the DUP, it was to destroy the institutions from within, while for SF, it was to use the same institutions as a springboard to working for a United Ireland. However, as the tangible benefits of the peace dividend began to be felt by all people in NI, both parties recognised the support among the electorate for devolved government in NI.
Consequently both the DUP and SF ceased to look beyond Stormont and its devolved institutions and began concentration their efforts on the NI assembly and the business of governing NI.
Electorally, SF’s position improved as the peace process developed and continued to gather momentum. The party gained 18 assembly seats in the 1996 elections.
In the 2001 Westminster elections SF’s share of the vote increased further, and the party won an extra two seats bringing their total to four. The SDLP was sensationally relegated to 4th largest party and SF exceeded the SDLP in terms of Westminster seats.
As SF actively engaged in the politics of devolved government and in governing NI, its credibility and legitimacy increased which in turn translated into further electoral gains.
In the 2003 elections SF became the largest nationalist party in the assembly. The party increased its number of assembly seats from 18 to 24. A number of factors help explain such a dramatic increase in electoral successes. Firstly a change in voting behaviour among the nationalist community, secondly disillusionment with the SDLP among its traditional electorate and finally the increased support for SF from a younger generation with less experience of IRA violence in their formative years. Moreover SF’s image as a young, diverse and proactive part also appealed to the nationalist electorate, especially when compared alongside the ineffectual and seemingly out of touch SDLP.
The politicalisation of the conflict has resulted in an improvement in SF’s fortunes. Gaining electorally while adapting to the support of its electorate for the devolved institutions, SF has engaged in the business of governing NI. Members participate fully in the Executive and the Assembly committees and the Assembly itself. Perhaps more than any of the other parties in NI, SF has proved itself to be the most adaptable, recognising the need to engage in talks, accepting compromise on contentious power sharing with former opponents and ultimately decommissioning.
While the party hardliners might see this in terms of compromise and in the extreme as a sell-out, the benefits of this realpolitik are clear to see: credible and legitimate involvement in government and a growing electorate.
Although initially the unprecedented success of both SF and the DUP was viewed by many as a doomsday scenario, continued emphasis has been placed on establishing greater interaction between the two parties in an attempt at restoring devolution once again to NI. Yet even the very fact that these, once Unwavering opponents are now prepared to interact to some degree demonstrates the progress that has been made in the peace process and it can only be assumed and indeed hoped that such progress is capitalises on and additional advances made in the quest to restore devolution and indeed a sense of normality to NI and finally bring closure to the bitterness and hostility after 30 years of conflict.