DUP fundamentalists warming to a deal?

One leading Irish journalist once accused me of being a permanent Polyanna, mostly because I’ve consistently believed there would be an egress, of sorts, from this apparently endless Peace Processing™. John Coulter is even more upbeat than anyone I’ve read recently. He reckons a deal could be done by November 24th. As Gerry Adams said yesterday, a deal could be done tomorrow. Coulter thinks the ‘fundamentalists’ are ready to back one, if Paisley gives the word the deal is passable.

Trust me – 50 days from tomorrow (Friday 6 October), with these immortal words, DUP boss Ian Paisley could win the approval of his religious Rednecks to pave the way for an historic Paisleyite/Sinn Fein deal on Friday 24 November.

Such an agreement will see the suspended power-sharing Executive at Stormont back in action by Monday 27 November with the return of legislative powers to the Northern Assembly. This summer’s heatwave seems to have rubbed off on DUP thinking with the body language on Stormont hill indicating a slightly warmer willingness to ‘do the business with the Shinners’.

In the DUP mindset, there has never been so great an opportunity to seal the deal with SF since an agreement was almost reached in December 2004, just a year after the Paisley camp trounced the rival David Trimble-led Ulster Unionists in the November 2003 Assembly elections. However, the best indicator of an impending deal between republicanism and unionism will come on Monday at Stormont when one of the most historic meetings in the life of the Northern state will take place.

Paisley, the Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster – perhaps the most Right-wing of Protestantism’s fundamentalist denominations – will meet Archbishop Sean Brady, the leader of Ireland’s Catholics. This meeting will be more significant than one at Stormont just over 40 years ago in January 1965 when the then Taioseach Sean Lemass came to Parliament Buildings for talks with the then Northern Premier Terence O’Neill.

While the so-called ‘hot house’ peace talks are scheduled next week for the tranquil setting of St Andrew’s in Scotland, with a major announcement expected on Friday 13 October, it will be Monday’s meeting of the two religious leaders which could give the blessing to the creation of the Executive. Paisley will be seeking assurances from the Catholic Primate that SF is genuine in the republican movement’s desire to join the Policing Board and support the PSNI.

Archbishop Brady will want equal assurances if republicans do endorse the police, the Paisley camp will indeed take the leap of faith and form the Executive with SF. Northern Secretary Peter Hain is adamant if there is no deal by 24 November, the salaries and expenses of the 108 MLAs will be chopped and the so-called Hain Assembly set up in May will collapse.

However, this still leaves a window of a week before the original Stormont Assembly established in 1998 under the Good Friday Agreement is formally wound up. The current thinking in unionism is that Paisley will not deal before 24 November – simply to prove to his fundamentalist troops he cannot be browbeaten or bullied by London and Dublin.

The Hain Assembly is expendable – but not the original ’98 version. Indeed, the general mood within unionism is at its most hopeful for six months, according to UUP sources. One senior MLA told the Star last night: “There is no reason for the DUP not to do a deal. They know they could destroy themselves if a deal isn’t clinched.”

In spite of Paisley’s ‘over my dead body’ style speech at the Twelfth, the DUP’s pro-deal wing under deputy leader Peter Robinson seems to have got its act back on track since mid July. If a deal is secured, Paisley could occupy the post of First Minister for a short time before handing over to Robinson, a move which would firmly entrench the DUP as a devolutionist movement.

The DUP’s participation in an Executive with the support of the religious bogmen – especially in North Antrim – would make it harder for grassroots favourite MEP Jim Allister to stage a leadership bid once Paisley relinquished his reins of power.

First published in the Irish Daily Star.