I use to enjoy Blackadder. My favourite character was the side-kick servant and ex- dung shoveller Baldrick who became famous for one of the most popular catch-phrases in British comedy- ‘I have a cunning plan’.
Inevitably the plans which were ridiculous – perversely sometimes worked. In the series ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ attempting to prevent going ‘over the top’ in the trenches, Baldrick tells Blackadder that he has ‘a cunning plan…cunning as a fox that has just been made Professor of Cunning at Oxford University’. We don’t get to hear the plan as Blackadder responds saying; ‘whatever it was I am sure that it was better than my plan to get out of here by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman around here’.
Last week many of our political parties declared their own ‘cunning plans’. The SDLP changed their Leader; the Ulster Unionists rattled their sabres; Alliance tried to look virginal and the DUP Leader announced he had a ‘clever device’.
All very cunning or at least as cunning as a Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister who knows he could be First Minister sometime soon. Apparently the ‘clever device’ is a post-dated letter of resignation signed by the First Minister should Sinn Fein refuse to allow the Orange Order to stomp down the Garvaghy Road after the transfer of Policing and Justice Powers to the Northern Executive.
This so called ‘clever device’ was invented by David Trimble- not that the DUP is likely to give the former Ulster Unionist Leader the credit. Indeed they heavily criticised Trimble at the time. However, the DUP or at least two thirds of it are now firmly down the furrow first ploughed by the Ulster Unionists and one can’t blame Sir Reg and his colleagues for making the DUP squirm at little. It appears Sir Reg wants a price for providing much needed political cover to his East Belfast rival and that price appears to be movement on academic selection and ergo the humiliation of Education Minister Ruane- the bête noir of middle class unionists.
In fairness, if achieved it’s a better and more meaningful win for Unionism (not to mention many Catholics) than the pantomime politics of the Orange Order.
Yet it would be a mistake for the First Minister to go down the route of- not so clever tactics- in order to appease his recalcitrant backbenchers.
With the exception of the ‘clever device’ caveat; he passionately defended the deal done with Sinn Fein on the floor of Stormont. If he wants to learn something from David Trimble it should be from the latter’s mistakes and in particular his half hearted selling of the Belfast Agreement. Despite his personal and private difficulties, slowly and assuredly we are beginning to see Peter Robinson- the man. There is an air of vulnerability about him that is more endearing that the cold exterior he portrayed in the past. The unionist and non unionist public will respond favourably to him especially when contrasted with what appears to be an almost permanently snarling image of the TUV Leader.
Opinions polls suggested this week that Sinn Fein and the DUP are still in relatively strong positions. Irrationally the electoral prospect of a Sinn Fein First Minister swings ominously like the sword of Damocles; over the heads of unionist leaders. Yet the Office of First and Deputy First Minister is a joint office. As Ministers; Martin McGuinness, Conor Murphy and Michelle Gildernew are more than welcome in unionist areas and they are afforded all the courtesies of their office. Mr McGuinness has surprised many since becoming Deputy First Minister and whatever about the politics of Sinn Fein – in office he has won many converts by this demeanour and personality. The ballot box is the final arbiter in a democracy and if the outcome results in Sinn Fein being the largest party then they are entitled to the spoils of their mandate. You can’t handcuff political protagonists in a democratic society just because one does not like them.
Both Robinson and McGuinness have pledged to be more inclusive of their junior coalition partners; proof of that would be the acceptance of the SDLP right to the Justice post and in fairness to the latter they are now proposing a suitably qualified candidate in Alban Maginness.
Who would have thought of Ian Paisley as the North’s Blackadder when he dismissed talk of ‘clever devices and cunning plans’? Unlike Baldrick the Renaissance has not been lost on Paisley!