By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)
All the nominations are in now for the election on March 7 and it looks like the biggest field of runners since 1998.
Not perhaps in terms of numbers but in the range of nutters and no-hopers offering themselves up to ridicule.
Most have no chance because there is only one issue in this election - will unionists share power on equal terms with nationalists?
You have to go back to John Major’s disgraceful stunt in 1996 - the so-called forum that met in the old Co-op building on Belfast’s York Street - to find the last time the north’s political flotsam and jetsam had a chance of being elected but that was only because the Northern Ireland Office had doctored the election process to provide the political fronts of loyalist terrorist groups and their newly invented Women’s Coalition with a platform.
Needless to say the NIO ploy deservedly failed (don’t they all?) and we were back to porridge by 2003.
It’s the same old question confronting unionism, the one that has caused that once monolithic ethnic bloc to tear itself to shreds since 1973.
The record of Stormont debates is now available online and you can read the wrangling among unionists as Stormont writhed in its death throes from 1969 to 1972.
In those debates Gerry Fitt, John Hume and Austin Currie were treated to the same litany of insults and accusations now reserved for Sinn Féin.
Indeed they were assaulted by Paisley supporters on their way into the chamber in 1969.
Unionists could not make up their minds who was the worse ogre, Fitt or Hume.
Under no circumstances would they contemplate sitting down with either of them or anyone in their party to run the north.
Some of the unionist diatribe is quite demented.
Leading the charge of course was the man Brian Faulkner called “the demon doctor”, none other than Ian Paisley.
For Paisley, treachery and ‘disloyalty’ were only to be expected from Fitt and Hume.
His fiercest attacks were reserved for unionists he considered about to sell the pass - traitors and Lundys all.
No wonder then the astonishment of his faithful followers, those who hitched themselves to his wagon years ago, to hear Paisley saying exactly what he castigated O’Neill, Chichester-Clark and Faulkner for contemplating, except that in Paisley’s case he is planning a step far beyond anything imagined by the men he overthrew, sharing power not with the likes of Hume but with Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator, the great bogeyman Martin McGuinness.
There has never been such a somersault in northern politics.
No wonder then Paisley’s dissembling in interviews about his intentions after the election.
No wonder the dishonesty of the DUP manifesto inventing conditions for sharing power to give the party’s dissidents a let-out clause but binding them with a #20,000 fine because Paisley knows they’re ready to bolt.
Some of Paisley’s candidates are whispering to their supporters that there won’t be an election, desperately hoping that Tony Blair will call it off or postpone it as in 2003.
Willie McCrea told the House of Commons that the DUP’s position was “condition-led, not calendar-led”.
It is calendar-led precisely because Bertie Ahern and Blair both have important dates - one an election, the other his exit strategy.
Blair does not intend to exit Downing Street a few weeks after being faced down by Ian Paisley. How ignominious an end to his wretched premiership would that be? We are not privy to the dire warnings Blair has given Paisley but you can be sure that unionism will pay dearly if Blair is humiliated.
There will be an election unless Paisley has the guts to say he will not share power with Sinn Féin.
He will not do that because, like Blair, he wants to go out on a high note, to crown a career of dangerous, negative, incendiary rhetoric with a period in office whatever the price.
Could you ever have dreamed there would have been a crisis in unionism caused by Ian Paisley’s desire to share power with Sinn Féin?