A clear road back to Democracy…”

Frank Millar is no one’s garrulous optimist. But it’s worth looking at his analysis from Saturday before going too far the ‘we don’t really know about this odd couple’ route.

“There are real grounds for thinking that the Rev Ian Paisley might actually agree to form a new power-sharing executive with Sinn Féin by the stipulated March 26 deadline. For those who like to hedge, however, key DUP strategists suggest the safer bet is that ‘the Big Man’ will certainly be installed as First Minister by the end of May.

“The Irish and British governments, like Sinn Féin, will protest that March 26 is non-negotiable – that the DUP either commits to power-sharing by that date or Plan B, and joint British/Irish “stewardship” of Northern Ireland, comes into effect. Moreover, Prime Minister Blair can also argue that Dr Paisley has less cause now to delay.

“The DUP leader’s internal critics failed to openly challenge him during the election, while the anti-agreement campaign threatened on the party’s right imploded. There are no “unpledged” DUP Assembly Members waiting to take their seats at Stormont. And while some of them privately whispered their doubts about the direction in which Dr Paisley was taking the party – or, at least, about the speed with which he was approaching his intended destination – Paisley prevailed, carried on, and has now won a famous victory. Are the doubters really going to rain on his parade?”

“Nigel Dodds, Gregory Campbell, William McCrea and David Simpson have made no secret of their view that the period available between the election and March 26 is unlikely to suffice. Dr Paisley and deputy leader Peter Robinson (who has been long-term the organisational force behind this now-formidable election winning machine) know that no amount of testing will ever satisfy some in their ranks.

“There will come a point of decision when they have to disappoint, and probably lose, some of their hardliners. Before reaching that point, however, they will want to divide and reduce those currently coalescing around the strictest interpretation of party policy. Here the dispositions of Mr Dodds and Mr Campbell, in particular, will be crucial. Dr Paisley and Mr Robinson have no intention of losing either talent, indeed are more likely to think to see both shine again in ministerial office.”

It is what satisfies these two in particular that matters, he argues, but we are not likely to know before 26th March. As a footnote, he adds:

“The Ulster Unionist Party strikes many as just about finished. Its further collapse under Reg Empey will likely reinforce the drive for further realignment and one unionist party – a development which might not even have to await the post-Paisley-era, given his own occupation now of the centre-ground.”

However the fact that the party (unlike its Nationalist counterparts, the SDLP) has two seats on the Executive looks like to stay the executioner’s hand.

Mark Durkan may have cause for some deep regret that his first step in this campaign was to pick a fight with the old RUC Special Branch. For a more convincing note, he might have borrowed from his 2005 conference speech, and pitched this a choice between, “the parties that gave us the worst of our past and the one party that is ready to give us all the best of our future”.

Yet both ‘moderate’ parties seemed strangely reluctant to land a straight blow on their respective rivals, giving the impression that both leaders had their fingers crossed behind their backs, and wishing for the best. The UUP had simply had further to fall, and lucked out on the Ministerial seat tally. With one seat on the Executive, the SDLP will struggle to make any credible claim that they are in a position to help shape that future.

Whether the marriage of Ulster’s ‘Odd Couple’ will work in the long run is quite another matter.