There’s an unnatural order about the big two parties in Northern Ireland. Their discipline is the stuff of cults. Dissent is not tolerated. So when a fight breaks out, the rarity value draws a large crowd of spectators.
The DUP has been entertaining the masses this week with a mixture of regicidal plotting, name-calling, blood-letting and public displays of affection.
The plotting has been ongoing for months with talk of Peter Robinson facing an early exit and speculation from informed sources that the leader would not be around to fight the next election.
There were rumblings from what could be called the Paisleyites, still aggrieved at the manner of the Big Man’s removal from leadership. In an article for his local newspaper after his father’s death, Ian Paisley Jnr described critics of his father as “pygmies in his shadow”. The dig at Robinson could not be hidden.
Meanwhile, there were signs of errant ministers not caring to follow the collective line.
DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots sparked a crisis when he refused to implement cuts, saying the Executive would need to find someone else to take the pain. His party colleague, Finance Minister Simon Hamilton was unimpressed and hit out at “poor budget management” in health.
Back from his holidays, Peter Robinson wasted little time taking action. First, he announced that the entire edifice at Stormont was built on shaky foundations and demanded all-party talks. This had the effect of halting internal dissent in its tracks – who wants to oust a leader when the future looks so uncertain?
Having set the wider context to a suitably high anxiety level – with Sinn Fein playing along beautifully – he moved to eliminate the rudderless dissent in DUP ranks.
Poots was sacked from his ministerial position. Other non-members of the Robinson fan club lost positions on committees, making room for loyal appointees. The Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland also lost his job, but despite damning headlines over his handling of Housing Executive business, his loyalty had never really been in doubt.
The promotions, and therefore sackings, were each announced on Twitter with photographs of the smiling newcomers accepting their responsible new positions. It was essentially a parade of executions with the chief executioner, Peter Robinson, taking full credit for the ruthless action.
This public humiliation is what must have prompted the ousted Poots to take to the airwaves and nonchalantly let slip that it was “public knowledge” that his party leader would step down before the planned 2016 Assembly elections. A statement denying this public knowledge was issued from Robinson’s office within minutes of the broadcast.
He followed this with an interview in which he talked about his critics as people who possessed the “strategic vision of a lemming”, warning that he would deal with those who did not back his leadership.
Then another Twitter parade followed. This time it was public professions of loyalty to the leader. A stream of tweets from MPs and MLAs all declaring their unyielding support for Peter Robinson. Even those who had never been knowingly near a tweet in their lives had their sentiments neatly parcelled into 140 characters by head office and dispatched into the world wide web of wonder.
To add insult to injury, the ousted health minister was forced to recant, declaring on Twitter that “Northern Ireland needs strong leadership, not internal strife in its largest party. DUP leader has clear mandate.” Sometimes, even in a tweet, it’s possible to see gritted teeth.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin is playing its own little games of distraction – calling for border polls etc – and doing a much better job of hiding deep internal dissent. Those who question their leader’s strategic vision never quite make it to a radio studio to expand on their thoughts. Believers say this is because such people don’t exist, but sceptics know otherwise.
In August Sinn Féin settled an employment case with the party’s former northern political director, and former hunger striker, Leo Green. This most senior figure at Stormont – effectively the party’s key man for all the policy deals with the DUP that must happen to make Stormont work – felt so aggrieved at his treatment by the party that he was going to court.
He never got there because the case was settled. And this is what a Sinn Féin spokesperson said: “The issues between Leo Green and Sinn Féin have been resolved amicably, on terms which are confidential to both parties. This matter is now concluded.”
In other words: “We’re not saying what happened, what’s been agreed and we’re not going to talk about it ever again.”
The widespread belief is that Leo Green did a deal on welfare reform that would have avoided the massive fines now being imposed by Westminster on Stormont and which could shortly lead to the collapse of the institutions. It was a good deal by Stormont’s horse-trading standards.
But it was not a deal that pleased President Gerry Adams who didn’t want any issue that impacted on southern elections and is willing to sacrifice Stormont as a result.
So, where does it leave the north’s fragile institutions? A new round of all-party talks seems inevitable. Instability currently suits both sides for different reasons. If you’ve ever wondered what a fight between pygmies and lemmings might look like – now you know.
Article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post, 25th Sep 2014