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Not the Hillsborough Agreement!

Paul Dixon on how problems with 'Swish family Robinson' helped seal a deal on power-sharing

The 'Agreement at Hillsborough Castle ' on 5th February 2010 promises to 'save' power-sharing in Northern Ireland from the people. The 'Agreement at Hillsborough' traded the devolution of justice and policing for a working party to look at the role of the Parades Commission.

This agreement is about process, and working parties are also established to look into improving the performance of the Executive and to other issues outstanding from the St Andrews Agreement 2006. Remarkably, it was the two main Northern Irish parties that principally negotiated this deal, with some pressure and support from the British, Irish and US governments. The document talks of 'working together in a spirit of partnership'.

If this is more than hyperbole then it would be the most striking development from this deal. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have not yet shaken hands in public because of the political sensitivity of such an act. Yet the successful implementation of the Agreement at Hillsborough does require partnership, the deal is unstable because of the continuing communal antagonisms and political tensions that exist in Northern Ireland.

The St Andrews Agreement 2006 paved the way for Sinn Fein and the DUP to share power in the Northern Ireland Executive in May 2007. While Sinn Fein had gradually manoeuvred its supporters from 'war' to peace over period of years, the DUP's about face on power-sharing with Sinn Fein was rapid. On 12th July 2006 , Ian Paisley told a gathering on the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne , 'No unionist who is a unionist will go into partnership with IRASinn Fein.'

In less than a year Dr No was the 'chuckle brother' of Martin McGuinness, allegedly former Chief of Staff of the IRA. Ian Paisley suffered as a consequence of his decision to enter an executive with Sinn Fein. He was forced to step down both as leader of the DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church, the church he founded. The DUP's reputation as the party of principled, 'honest Ulstermen' has been damaged by scandals over Ian Paisley jnr's involvement with property developers, the parliamentary expenses paid to DUP politicians (including the 'Swish family Robinson') and by Iris Robinson's financial relationship with property developers and sexual affair with a teenager.

The DUP's transformation from party of protest to party of government was always going to be difficult for the DUP leadership to manage. During 'the troubles' there had been indications that there was a constituency even more hardline than the DUP leader that, in the right circumstances, might be galvanised. George Seawright was expelled from the DUP for anti-Catholic remarks in the wake of the Anglo-Irish (or Hillsborough) Agreement he suggested that Catholics should be incinerated but subsequently succeeded in winning significant support as a 'Protestant unionist' and was elected to Belfast City Council.Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) has emerged as a significant ultra hardline challenge to the DUP's electoral dominance.

The European Elections in 2009 suggested that unionism was split three ways between the TUV, the DUP and the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party. The DUP seems to have been increasingly anxious about the threat from the TUV even before the scandal over Iris Robinson emerged after Christmas. This may help to explain its reluctance to agree to Sinn Fein's demand for the devolution of justice and policing until there was 'community confidence'. The DUP's foot-dragging on the devolution of justice and policing (it was expected in Spring 2008) and an Irish language act has created problems for Martin McGuinness.

Sinn Fein's electoral march in the Irish Republic has stalled and the party's aspiration to be in government in both the North and South of Ireland has foundered. The devolution of justice and policing bolsters their argument that the UK state's presence is being reduced. The Republican dissident threat has increased, recently they tried to murder the PSNI (Police Service Northern Ireland) constable, Peadar Heffron, an Irish language specialist, who is also the captain of its GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) team and cousin of Declan Kearney, Sinn Fein's Director of Information. The DUP's electoral problems, compounded by sexual and financial scandals, made the party vulnerable in ongoing negotiations with Sinn Fein.

The DUP and the UUP considered an electoral pact in the event that Sinn Fein collapsed powersharing in order to prevent the republican party emerging as the largest party in Northern Ireland and entitled to the First Minister's position further undermining powersharing in the eyes of hardline unionists.

These negotiations undermined the alliance of the Ulster Unionist Party and the Conservatives Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force and their claim to create a new, non-sectarian politics. Ironically, while Northern Ireland 's Conservatives baulked at an alliance with the DUP to prevent Sinn Fein getting the First Minister's seat, Sinn Fein have not expressed such reservations about sharing power with the DUP.