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DUP mishandling of row makes future deal even less likely

By Suzanne Breen ·

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The DUP's Gregory Campbell (Niall Carson)

The story of the deal that was nearly done is one the DUP has been trying to kill off since the Valentine's Day talks collapse.

Not only did it fail to strangle it at birth, but the tale has taken new twists and turns every day with the cast of characters rapidly expanding. Gregory Campbell, Edwin Poots, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Arlene Foster, Dr Phiip Weir, and now Nigel Dodds have become embroiled in the story that just won't go away.

Blame for the mess the DUP finds itself in lies solely at the party's own door. From the get-go it ducked and dived around the existence of a draft agreement.

Sinn Fein took ownership of the story and drove the narrative. The DUP looked as if it had something big to hide, and that's because it did. The party negotiators were on course to agree to measures on the Irish language that would have their supporters shouting "sell-out!".

In what now can be clearly seen as a strategic disaster, the party did no preparatory work with its grassroots on the give-and-take that a return to power-sharing would mean. When those compromises began to leak into the media, the party buried its head in the sand and adopted a policy of "deny, deny, deny".

While DUP voters are unlikely to be sporting 'I Believe Mary Lou' badges, their trust in the party has been deeply tested in recent weeks. The DUP is very likely telling the truth when it says Nigel Dodds wasn't in the room when Mrs Foster and Michelle O'Neill exchanged the draft deal, but the party's problem is that the waters have already been so muddied by its own ambiguity and erroneous assertions in recent weeks.

Mrs Foster said on Monday that she had a "lever arch folder" containing papers some of which related to how Sinn Fein ministers would implement the military covenant. But if the DUP has material that would embarrass Sinn Fein, then why not release it?

Despite its current pickle, the DUP is saved by two factors: there won't be an election until next year's council poll, and there is no viable alternative to the party in the unionist community.

Neither the Ulster Unionists nor Jim Allister's TUV are serious competitors breathing down the DUP's neck.

So the party's tactic of just battening down the hatches until the media storm passes will likely work. The real casualty in the talks' fallout leaks is trust between the two big parties, which is totally gone.

Sinn Fein has won the propaganda battle but at the cost of a future DUP that will bring new meaning to the word immoveable.

Last time round its negotiators were prepared to bend but got cold feet after seeing their grassroots reaction. In any future talks, expect Mrs Foster to be totally rigid and unbending.

Not an inch will be conceded in emails, documents or private conversations.

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The DUP's Gregory Campbell (Niall Carson)