Can the DUP survive the security report?

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The two wise men and one wise woman have made a bad situation worse. Enter the spectre of the “Army Council.”

The two wise men and one wise woman have made a bad situation worse. Enter the spectre of the “Army Council.”

Even George Hamilton avoided lighting that particular blue touch paper, or perhaps I should say, launching that particular iceberg.

Instead of providing the DUP with their hoped for fig-leaf, the security assessment has sent up a distress flare. The leading unionist party is at sea. It has hit the iceberg and is holed below the water line. For now the orchestra is still playing and the party leaders are re-arranging the deckchairs but they may eventually be forced into the lifeboats.

It won’t happen for weeks or months or even until next May but make no mistake about it, the DUP’s ship is listing.

Instead of delivering a bland report, reinforcing what the Chief Constable had already told us, the assessment the DUP had wanted went into surprising detail about the links between the IRA and Sinn Féin. A bland report might have provided some sort of a life raft to rescue the DUP from their ‘in-out’ policy but, instead, they were handed a ticking time-bomb.

Despite that, the DUP were utterly desperate to escape from their disastrous protest. It had attracted dangerous levels of ridicule. Within an hour, they said they would return to the executive as a result of what the report had said. That was despite the party’s Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds describing its findings as, “totally unacceptable”.

In reality, the report provided massive comfort to Mike Nesbitt’s Ulster Unionists and to Jim Allister’s TUV.

It’s a hostage to fortune for the DUP. Now Peter Robinson insists he never had any illusions about the continued existence of the Army Council. “It really is a distinction without a difference to say there is something special about the Army Council being involved,” he told the BBC. He says the issue must be addressed in the talks and says there are only a few weeks to save Stormont, or “Stormount,” as even broadcasters have taken to calling it.

The DUP’s real problem is that the report has wrecked the narrative they carefully fostered for the last 17 years. David Trimble was lambasted for clinging to office despite the continued existence of the IRA and the absence of decommissioning. Trimble was another “weak” unionist leader in a long line of weak unionist leaders.

Contrast that with the DUP, they said. They had secured “total” decommissioning, as Sammy Wilson announced. In 2007 Willie McCrea said, “let there be no doubt whatsoever that the Army Council has to go.” A year later, Peter Robinson said, “We require the removal of the IRA’s Army Council and we always made that clear.”

We must recognise too that the report, along with the review by Garda Commissioner, Nóirín O’Sullivan, won’t have made life any easier for Sinn Féin. Claims that an illegal organisation secretly controls the party and allegations that former IRA men are involved in organised crime for personal gain may have little currency in the north, but are still damaging in the south.

Here, it’s fascinating to watch the DUP squirming on the unfamiliar ground of defending pragmatism. It’s a case of, ‘what goes around, comes around’.

There’ll probably be a deal in the talks soon but the DUP has been damaged and may pay the price in next May’s election.