The Irish Times this morning is upbeat. It notes that Sinn Fein has already made its tough decisions over policing (even if it is still not clear it can meet past promises on devolution), and that the DUP seems determined to confront it’s own dissidents.
The leadership of the DUP is being challenged by internal and external critics and Ian Paisley has come under considerable pressure. So far, careful management has focused attention on the election itself and on the necessity to gain seats in order to deny Sinn Féin and Martin McGuinness the position of first minister. But that strategy may become difficult to sustain as the Ulster Unionist Party, the Alliance Party and the UK Unionist Party seek to establish what precisely the DUP intends to do with its mandate.
There are indications Dr Paisley is prepared to confront those who are opposed to a deal with Sinn Féin. Having indicated a willingness to accept the position of first minister and declared he would not be found wanting if Sinn Féin endorsed the PSNI and actively encouraged full co-operation with the criminal justice system, the DUP leader said it would be up to the electorate to decide the issue. Resistance to power-sharing within the party has been met by requirements that candidates sign pre-election pledges and resignation letters that may be invoked in future disciplinary hearings. In spite of that, however, five DUP councillors have broken ranks while half of its Westminster MPs have expressed varying levels of opposition.
Winning the election on March 7th would only be a first step for the DUP. After that, Dr Paisley will have three weeks in which to convince his party to share power or, in the words of the British prime minister Tony Blair, to waste a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make lasting peace. It will be a difficult time. But, if the DUP polls well, it can argue from a position of increased strength for the establishment of devolved government, as an alternative to seeing Plan B being introduced over the heads of the electorate. In that situation, support would be forthcoming from the major parties. The opportunity now being offered to voters has the capacity to transform the political landscape in Northern Ireland.
Perhaps we should wait a while and see what it actually says in the party’s hard fought over manifesto…