By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)
David Trimble could not do it and was cast into the political wilderness leaving behind the party that was once led by unionist luminaries like Edward Carson and James Craig; the party that was the unionist government for more than 50 years; the party that today is struggling to come to terms with being in second place to the DUP.
Ian Paisley is still considering whether he can do it. The party that he shaped in his own image - dour, unyielding, fundamentalist, obedient only to him, is showing signs of stress, of tension in the face of deciding if they can do it.
The it in question, a simple, yet in northern politics a very powerful concept - power sharing, accepting nationalists as equals with political, economic and cultural rights.
The power-sharing tide flowed towards Ian Paisley’s feet as he stood speaking in the assembly chamber last Friday. The tide ebbed in the face of his harsh words echoing a time past. It then flowed back towards him again outside the assembly chamber, when he issued a statement of ‘intent’ to be first minister in certain circumstances.
The mood among assembly members in last Friday’s chamber was a world away from the mood of those who gathered on Monday past to complete the business abruptly interrupted last Friday when a bomber knocked on the assembly’s door with murder on his mind.
The unionist benches on Friday swirled with invective as the DUP and UUP accused each other of selling out.
The zeal of the convert was very much on display in the performance of Jeffrey Donaldson who eagerly struck out at any of his former UUP colleagues who dared to raise their heads to accuse the DUP of doing what the UUP tried to do and failed - compromise.
Monday was much calmer. Ian snr reclined comfortably into his assembly chair as Peter Robinson permitted himself a chuckle, just a little, but considerably more than he allowed himself on Friday. On Friday he sat impassively and listened to his leader’s inaudible, weak and monotone voice.
Nigel Dodds also seemed more relaxed. The frantic angry, twitching in his right leg, which accompanied Ian’s speech on Friday was replaced by an occasional, relaxed, sagely nodding of his head.
Although you could hear murmurings as DUP assembly members shuffled uncomfortably as an uncharacteristically mild-mannered Bob McCartney tried to find a place for his rapier, which he wielded more in ‘sorrow rather than anger’, at the party which he voted for at the last election and which was about to ‘betray’ him.
Eyed askance by Paisley snr, McCartney failed to land any of his verbal punches on a party which had a weekend to reflect on what seemed to us observers like a party in turmoil.
On paper, half of Ian Paisley’s parliamentary party and a third of his assembly party had the temerity to issue a public statement last Friday which appeared to contradict him.
Time will tell whether Mr Dodds, the most senior of the rebels, is about to assume the wrecking mantle carried by Jeffrey Donaldson when he was a member of the UUP.
But time will not change the stark choice the DUP face. They faced it at St Andrews - they can occupy the benches at the assembly, be part of an all-Ireland administration and help shape future politics for their supporters, or occupy Westminster’s benches and helplessly watch the British and Irish governments implement joint authority.
The word on the ground among some of Belfast’s seasoned and experienced journalists is that Ian Paisley, despite Friday’s political tantrums, still wants to exit politics with the position of first minister emblazoned on his CV.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the formation of his party. For that time and more he took the scalps of all unionist leaders who contemplated power sharing. Last Friday he looked like a man teetering on the brink of losing his own scalp. By Monday past he seemed to have regained his composure.
With Martin McGuinness as his co-equal deputy first minister he is now shakily wearing the crown of transitional first minister.In time it could become a firmer fit.