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?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty