Ulster back at a crossroads

I’ve watched the bitter rejoicing that has always accompanied hard line unionist victories for 40 years. And victory of sorts is what Jim Allister has achieved, a victory against expectations if not against worst fears, just as the young Ian Paisley almost toppled that most modest of reformers Terence O’Neill in February 1969. Peter Robinson would shrink from the comparison but that is how he has been cast. 1969 was the one and only election in 40 years when hopes were high of a breakthrough. Once dashed, they were never repeated. Such progress as was made later came not out elections but from attrition on the streets and in the conference chamber.

Rejoicing must be how David Trimble and the Conservative unionists must be feeling. Even in their wildest dreams they never thought they’d get their own back on their DUP tormentors. But rejoicing will be short lived. Unionism faces a choice, whether to turn away from powersharing or turn back the clock. They have decisions to take; for Mr Allister must believe he can destroy New DUP and with it, the compulsory coalition.

We now know that the parties of the extremes can be outflanked. This a blow to those who assiduously courted the DUP at Ulster Unionist expense, but it need not be fatal. There is no need to be spooked into paralysis by Mr Allister. There will be a decent majority for powersharing as the seal on the end to conflict, but this is plainly a wasting asset. Unionist infighting can still increase the risks of general breakdown, as Sinn Fein and everybody else should remind them.

Facing the logic of being outflanked requires a strategy. The DUP has been without one ever since the chuckling stopped. Sinn Fein are still living on the gains of disarmament and power sharing, though they are far from invulnerable too. The DUP have no such resource in their political bank. The electorate are confused between cooperation in government and deadly enemies in elections. The only way to make sense of this is to take initiatives both directions.

First a change of attitude. Don’t demonise Mr Allister and his supporters. Take the conscientious objectors to power sharing with killers seriously but separate them meticulously from loyalist killers. Catholics see DUP fumbling over condemning of Kevin McDaid’s murder as according them less than basic human respect.This is no a basis for power sharing. Sinn Fein whatever the flaws in the logic passed a sterner test with Martin McGuineess sensational ” traitors “attack on the murdering republicans.

Next, introduce the devolution of justice and policing at a run. Further delay is pointless and betrays weakness. Speed will build confidence with all nationalists. An Alliance minister extracts much of the the political poison from this essential step.

The common challenge of creating a new budget for the recession would be a good idea too. It would exploit the SDLP’s policy making skills. Ministers should pay attention to public demands for more openness and consultation, particularly over deadlocks like academic selection. Local choice may provide a route to a solution. The Assembly’s virtual disuse is a disgrace.

Unionist splitting is not the brightest of ideas. Now is the time for greater co-operation between the two main unionist parties, under a big Conservative umbrella perhaps, to keep them respectable. Nationalists will be suspicious but Cameron will not let them stray from the Agreements. He has nothing to gain from a retreat from the British-Irish framework and unionism has nowhere else to go. With an end to double jobbing now certain, an electoral pact for the Westminster general election is the logical next step. The longer term political outlook will be helped by the emergence of a new generation and the retirement of the old warriors. Once indispensable to the settlement, they are more and more an obstacle to its progress. Around 60 is not bad retirement age from the front line, I’ve found.

Jim Allister is not a bad man but like many barristers, he is better at putting hostile questions than coming up with generally acceptable answers. Northern Ireland cannot wait another forty years for him to find them. It’s the last thing he wants, but the limited logic of his boundless, excitable intransigence could lead us down the narrow road to another Omagh bomb.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London