The only question remaining: what happens next?

Alex Kane (though given his party’s poor showing in the last election, I doubt it gives him any comfort) predicted some time ago that the DUP and Sinn Fein would in the end settle somewhere in the middle ground (a middle ground strewn with the bodies of past political leaders and well intentioned projects for peace). The DUP’s hardliners the last to buckle under the political pressure to actually make the devolved institutions work. When all the shouting is over, we’ll be left with the dread, anti climatic question of ‘what next?’By Alex Kane

Well, as I noted in last Monday’s column, there would be no devolution until a specific date towards the end of May, no rebellion in the DUP ranks and no chance at all of Peter Hain crashing the process if his “set in stone” deadline was ignored. The DUP’s so-called hardliners buckled under the political reality that there were no alternatives to a speedy signing-up to power-sharing with Sinn Fein; consequently, the “testing period” which was mentioned during the election—and which varied from six months to almost two years—has been reduced to around six weeks.

I concluded last week’s piece this way; “Almost 33 years since the UUUC brought Sunningdale crashing to the ground (May 28, 1973), we are weeks away from the DUP and Sinn Fein forming a new administration. It has been a torturously long, bloody, frustrating plod. Whether it actually works in practice is anybody’s guess.”

Between now and devolution day the DUP and Sinn Fein are going to have to meet to agree the basic footwork and optics for this final phase of the process. They have sat together in the same studios for some time, and it is clear that there has been a fairly active nod-and-wink arrangement between them since June 2005 (with the two governments acting as messenger boys), but they have yet to have a formal face-to-face. Since they are now preparing to share out seventy percent of ministerial office between them, it is essential that they pre-arrange the machinery and enforced photo-opportunities.

A few weeks before the 2003 Assembly election I had an off-the-record conversation with a very senior member of the DUP. It began with him criticising a piece in which I had written, “If the DUP eclipses the UUP at this election and goes on to become the dominant voice of unionism, it will have only one decision to make; collapse the process or share power with Sinn Fein on terms which are almost identical to the existing arrangements.” His reaction and rebuttal? “Alex, short of the RUC being restored and IRA prisoners returned behind bars, there is no way our grassroots would buy into us in government with Kelly and McGuinness.”

It will be an extremely interesting few weeks for the DUP and it will be accompanied by some more resignations (although none from the MPs, MLAs or the MEP) and complaints from lifelong supporters who will be tracked down for phone-in programmes and opinion pieces. But the reality is there for all to see: the DUP has done the deal, sold the deal and set their own date for implementing the deal. Dr Paisley has outflanked Blair, Ahern and Sinn Fein, faced down his own internal dissidents, seen off the electoral challenge of anti-Agreement unionism and turned his party into the “dominant voice of unionism.”

It has been, by any definition of the term, a remarkable journey for the DUP; beginning with less than five percent of the vote and a mere twenty-one council seats in the party’s first election in 1973. Indeed, as recently as the 1997 council elections, in which it got less than one hundred seats and barely sixteen percent of the vote, some commentators were describing it as the “eternal also ran of unionism.”

I remember the night, in the run-up to the signing of the Belfast Agreement, when Ian Paisley was barracked by PUP supporters and told his career was over. I remember the look on DUP faces when the referendum result was announced and he was jeered by a crowd as he left the count in the King’s Hall. Yet here we are, with the DUP out-polling every other party and preparing to nail down a deal which it had previously claimed to be “utterly unacceptable in any shape or form.”

The journey from snow-balling opponent of Terence O’Neill in the mid-1960s, to First Minister (albeit with a Sinn Fein sidekick) of a power-sharing administration in 2007, has been a long one for Ian Paisley. It has been punctuated with contradictions, u-turns, stunts, stupidity, electoral beatings and serial ridiculing or writing-off by the media and by successive Conservative and Labour governments. But almost fifty years on, there he is, still standing, still politicking, still displaying flashes of the rhetorical flourishes that so dismayed the unionist middle-classes even a decade ago.

Oddest of all, though, it is Ian Paisley—described by me as a dinosaur in 1998—who has given his personal imprimatur to a political and constitutional arrangement which places the DUP and Sinn Fein/IRA (as he still occasionally describes them!) at the very heart of governance and respectability in Northern Ireland. No other unionist leader could have done it, for no other unionist leader has been able to deliver a unionist majority in favour of a government to replace the one which was prorogued on March 24, 1972.

Life in general and politics in particular is full of irony. Whole forests will be felled in the next few years in order that historians and commentators can explain the journey from single-party government to power-sharing government. The strangest and most ironic journey of all, however, is that of Ian Paisley himself. He began by opposing the “big house” unionist establishment and concessions to pluralist politics. By the end of May he will have ended the journey, becoming the formal and official voice of the new unionist establishment and a new pluralist based administration.

Napoleon Bonaparte claimed that political stability is only possible when the so-called extremes journey to the middle. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness have completed that journey. The question is, what happens next?

  • dodrade

    Alex Kane is the Cassandra of the UUP. His forecasts are always spot on, yet the party leadership never listen to him, lurching instead to their doom.

  • Biff2

    How do you think the current situation compares with the 1974 executive .I think you could only say that it is a big step backwards . Sein Fein has equal power in government & the Unionist party is almost eliminated . In 1974 the Republicans did not even have a political party never mind influence in the Executive when we even had our own minister for Europe to handle monetary subventions from the EEC in our own interests. Thirty years along the road Mr Paisley is relieved to accept a glorified county council in place of what was a proper system of independent government with a minister in place to act on our behalf in all departments . Finance , Health, Education , Benefits , Employment , etc which were all handled by local people in the interest of all , and the nay sayers of Vanguard , UDA , UVF , Orange order , Unionist Party , the Ulster Resistance Brigade et al , have now disappeared into the mists of time as nonentities.I shudder to think of the loss of life which could have been avoided if the 1974 assembly had survived for a year , but the Paisleyites & bigots could see the danger of co operation , and worked to bring it down before it became obvious that together we all could work for the betterment of everyone in Northern Ireland .What Mr Paisley and the DUP have been glad to accept is a mere shadow of what was real power in 1974 . The media if it had any integrity at all should point these facts out to himself, and his party at every opportunity .

  • Greenflag

    ‘The question is, what happens next?’

    Final UUP obsequies and interment most likley followed by a an almost simultaneous SDLP leap into the awaiting open political grave ?

    The question for the UUP has to be how could it have come to this ? The harsh truth is that the UUP just could not find within their ranks a politician capabable of outpoliticking Paisley .
    50 years in oppositionless Government 1920 through 1969 had them totally unprepared for the political challenges that were inevitably on their way.

    The Ulster Unionists had their big chance in 1974 or to be more specific the UUUC had . That particular bunch of ould codgers were the real dinosaurs and they left Brian Faulkner in the lurch rather than face the ‘inevitable’. I’ve always thought Faulkner would have done the business had he been given the chance . David Trimble was given a second chance in 1998 but he failed probably because for all his jumped up cleverness he exuded all the ‘humanity’ of a coal scuttle and could not get on with Seamus Mallon. Paisley may well succeed where others have failed . But it’s early days yet . While the UUP and SDLP may be contemplating their demise and preparing to dig their graves , they might want to postpone the lemming leap for a year or so .

    But all credit to Paisley if it actually works out . Personnally I’d have preferred if Hain had had to dissolve this ‘powerless’ Assembly . And even though Paisley was forced to eat some ‘humble pie’ he still ends up looking like the ‘hero’ or at least one of the ‘heroes’ of the moment .

    Of course this also raises the ‘possibilities’ for Taoiseach Ahern going into his election. He won’t say it in so many words but SF have become ‘potential’ coalition partners if FF/PD fail to make the numbers . No doubt behind the Greens and Independents but no longer out in the political cold .

    33 years may sound like an eternity in politics but a week is still a long time !

    Que sera sera

  • Greenflag

    Biff2,

    Fair comment and I can’t disgree . I always thought that Brian Faulkner would have made an excellent NI leader . Having a business background he would have moved quickly as regards getting inward investment into NI etc . But the UUUC could not be brought along.

    as to

    ‘The media if it had any integrity at all should point these facts out to himself, and his party at every opportunity . ‘

    You might think that Biff2 but the media could’nt possibly comment . Not until such time as this DUP/SF deal starts to fall apart at which time the ‘media of integrity’ will be the first hyenas to ravage said political corpses . Such is life . Not fair eh ?

    BTW Paisley could probably have told you that 33 years ago .

  • circles

    ’The question is, what happens next?’

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but a beer a smoke and a night of reflection is what happens next round my way.

    Good days work fellas – finally!

  • Datz Reit

    Jeepers Creepers, where in the hell is all this optimism coming from? I wouldn’t be nearly so sure that the DUP will honour their word.

    The position within mainstream and extreme Unionism is, I’m afraid, the same as it was 40 years ago and 75 years ago i.e. NO FENIANS ABOUT THE PLACE EVER.

    What will happen now is that the DUP will go off and think of another reason to come back and refuse to share power in 6 weeks time, and don’t think for one second that they won’t find one – or at least pretend to have found one. Either way, at the very least what you will see is an excuse being trotted out, by which time Blair will be on the eve of a very emotional departure from No. 10, Bertie will be facing into a very tough-to-call election, the two govts will have to put NI on the backburner for a couple of weeks at least; the summer holidays will come along and hey presto, all of a sudden you’re talking about October, November for the DUP to come up with yet more reasons not to have any Fenians about the place.

    I’ve said it before on this blog, but I’ll say it one more time…the Doc is going to wait out Blair’s resignation to see if brown is any more sympathetic to the Unionist cause. And even if blair were going to see out his third term in full, Paisley would still stall and delay until the day of his departure had come and gone. And if Brown doesn’t appear more interested in NI (which he won’t be during his ‘first 100 days’ at least, so that gives them another 3-4 months), he’ll find some way to stall until the next general election.

    And on and on and on it will go…

  • Conspiracy

    Time for a conspiracy theory, see how this grabs you;

    Blair as we all know has longed to crack the Irish problem
    Blair will be leaving on an undisclosed date in May
    DUP will finally hold their noses and go into government after 33 years of shit stirring

    =Has Blair finally swung the last victory in all those meetings with Paisley and his elk over the last few days by forcing the DUP to reduce their “testing period” from 2 years to 6 weeks to allow him to finish as PM with the Irish questions solved?

    Just a thought.

  • acatag

    Greenflag; “all credit to Paisley”? Do you realise how many of our people died because of that piece of crap?