Still the best of enemies

Observations on Northern Ireland

One Sinn Fein delegate caught herself in time. "I'm here in support of the revolu - I mean resolution." The speaker was Rose Dugdale, notorious in the mid-1970s for a spree of art theft for the republican movement. Time, as in age and imprisonment, has brought the middle-class revolutionary to the apogee of respectability. Like some 90 per cent of Sinn Fein delegates at the party's special conference last month, she voted to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The Democratic Unionists are squirming, but they are not saying "no". Both Sinn Fein and the DUP are saying "yes - eventually". The sequence is rolling upwards like bullets in a magazine. The "shadow" Northern Ireland Assembly met for the last time on 29 January. As of that midnight, the election is on.

That's the next detail. Both Sinn Fein and the DUP are poring over the manifesto commitments they have to make. Each has to convince its core supporters that the other lot will first have to swallow some principle. They also have to send a message of bona fides to each other. And try to retain the "middle" voters they have colonised from their "moderate" equivalents, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists.

Then, they have to appear serious about government. This will be no mean feat for either party. Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams have between them about 80 years of leadership experience, political, religious and military. Both of them are superb and ruthless practitioners of opposition politics. They are gifted with the steel and clout that only street politics can forge. They have adapted the structures of their own political organisations to their will. What both lack, however, is experience of ruling anything beyond their own people.

The DUP has run some district councils, but Northern Ireland has 26 councils for a population smaller than that of Greater Manchester (which has ten), and nearly all council powers were rescinded after direct rule in 1972. The reason that councils in Northern Ireland control parks and bin collections is that unionists blatantly abused their powers, especially in housing and council jobs. The behaviour of DUP councillors since then is that they have learned nothing, adamantly refusing to share powers with the SDLP or the Alliance Party, let alone Shinners.

Sinn Fein has adopted power-sharing with unionists in nationalist-dominated areas, but is still prone to rhetorical gesture politics of a kind that infuriates unionists. Most unionist councillors, especially those in the nationalist-dominated west and south of the province, have lost friends or relatives to the IRA. They don't like lectures on equality or selective condemnation of past state violence.

In addition, there are the structural expectations of Sinn Fein and the DUP as organisations. Brilliant street politicians don't necessarily make good governors. The SDLP and UUP are middle-class parties stuffed with lawyers and quangocrats. The DUP and Sinn Fein were, until recently, in effect barred from quangos, and while both parties dish out policy documents like confetti, their content and analysis tend to have a second-hand feel. Each lacks a "brains trust" to deal with the mundanities of everyday rule.

That is perhaps one reason both parties get tied up in minutiae over policing and the constitution, while ignoring the chasms between them on almost every social and economic question. It is, perhaps, also the reason why, during the last attempt at power-sharing, ministers from the DUP and Sinn Fein were loved by their civil servants.

In informal polling, the ministers most highly regarded by civil servants were Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and the DUP's Peter Robinson. Eulogies to their "commitment" and "organisational skills" may seem, to cynical folk, code for compliance with policies the civil service wanted to happen.

For example, Sinn Fein's socialist rhetoric vanished when McGuinness, as education minister, was given no choice but to fund school-building through the private finance initiative. Likewise, McGuinness's determination to scrap the eleven-plus was fully supported by his civil servants. The DUP, on the other hand, is leading the opposition to save the eleven-plus, despite the horrific rates of educational failure among the Protestant working classes. That this policy plays well to the DUP's new middle-class voters has entrenched the party's view.

Sinn Fein and the DUP differ wildly on investment, taxation, cross-border co-operation and, still, policing.

Almost every DUP member is a born-again Christian, with fixed views on sinful activities. Top of the list of sins seems to be sodomy, going by how much effort they spend trying to stop it. They are livid about civil partnerships and in a righteous rage about the latest equality legislation outlawing discrimination against sexual minorities. Peter Hain, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, knows this - and, by accident or design, ensured that Ulster was first in the UK to receive these initiatives.

Sinn Fein welcomes all minorities into its Big Tent, in accordance with its rhetoric of cosmopolitanism and anti-globalisation, and its belief that only those as oppressed as republicans can understand and feel the oppression of others.

The Assembly election will be held on 7 March, with the new Executive meeting on 26 March. Then the sparks will really fly.