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Sunday 19 September 2004

Brothers under the skin

It was twenty years ago, as we listened to Peter Robinson of the DUP, that John A. Murphy dug me in the ribs and said. 'Jaysus, we'll have to get up very early in the morning to deal with this crowd.' 

The location was a compound in Virginia, the dramatis personae anyone who was anyone on the British-Irish political scene other than Sinn Féin – for in olden days people who condoned political violence were not asked to conferences. Since Charlie Haughey and Ian Paisley both preferred to keep their followers away from anyone who might make them think, the organiser, Padraig O'Malley, had pulled off an incredible coup by having representatives of both Fianna Fail (even if two of them shortly afterwards founded the PDs) and the DUP. 

We all lived up to our stereotypes. Nationalists stayed up partying till dawn, English politicians and moderate unionists left the bar about midnight, and the DUP departed together after dinner having downed their last orange juice and held lengthy confabulations. 

By Day 2 the DUP had learned from their mistakes (dourness, aggression) on Day 1 and were smiling and telling the occasional good joke. By Day 3 a couple of them even briefly attended a sing-song before scurrying off to bed. And by the time we left Airlie House, so generally shoddy and ill-prepared was the contribution of most exhausted nationalists that the American audience had developed unionist sympathies. 

I didn't see much of the DUP at conferences for a long time after that, since Paisley rarely let them out of his sight, but when Sinn Féin began to appear on the circuit I was struck by their marked DUP characteristics: along with their, ruthlessness, wariness and intellectual insularity, went diligence, discipline, sobriety and a determination to learn the necessary skills to make their case and get their way. In Northern Ireland, this Cavalier realised wearily, there was not just one Cromwellian New Model Army: there were two. 

Now even though I am no fan of Paisley and recognise him for the malign agent provocateur he has frequently been, I see a clear distinction between DUP politicians, who didn't approve of murder, and their Sinn Féin equivalents, who did. 

But in most other regards, they are and continue to be, mirror images of each other. Unlike the Alliance, SDLP and Ulster Unionist parties, who aspired to bring communities together, both the DUP and SF were and are happy to exploit sectarianism, community tensions and fear, to polarise the electorate and thus destroy the centre. Cultural, political and religious segregation suits both parties just fine and dandy. Any deal they make will be de facto apartheid. 

As they studied the centre parties to find their vulnerabilities, so too have the DUP and Sinn Féin been studying each other to learn how they might best talk turkey from a position of strength. The modernising wing of the DUP has absorbed many lessons from Sinn Féin's skills as propagandists and negotiators. In the last few months, these industrious people have been putting into practice many of the lessons learned from the republican leadership – not least how to put the frighteners on the two governments. Instead of Gerry Adams shaking his head over his inability to sell concessions to the boys of the South Armagh Brigade, you've got Paisley being unleashed in all his bigoted and uncompromising glory, as Robinson shrugs resignedly behind his back. 

Then there's the mastery of obfuscation. In the lead-up to the Leeds Castle talks, both parties sent out deliberately contradictory messages which had the optimists thinking devolved government would be restored by Monday and the pessimists concluding there was no hope of any settlement ever. And the blame-game: both have perfected the language of 'We could do a deal tomorrow if only the others would see reason'. 

Most entertaining of all has been the mimicking by the DUP of the canary-in-the-mine routine. For years, Mitchel McLoughlin, Sinn Féin Chairman, has been sent out to test out the atmosphere north and south by saying the unexpected. If the kite flies (if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor), Gerry Adams rushes forth and brandishes it. Lo! No sooner had Jeffrey Donaldson changed all his stationery to reflect his new political allegiance, but he became the DUP's canary, despatched to summer schools to amaze southern opinion so as to help Robinson refine his Dublin charm-offensive. 

Like McLoughlin, Donaldson is personable: he's not known as Daniel O'Donaldson for nothing. Like McLaughlin - known in Derry as 'the draft-dodger' - Donaldson has a skeleton-free cupboard: unlike many of his new colleagues, he has never embraced religious bigotry. And like McLaughlin, for that very reason, he'll never be a threat to his party leadership. 

Keep an eye on both canaries over the next few weeks as the parties adjust their positions. What they say today, will be party policy tomorrow.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards