By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)
In a few days time the people of this country will know the answer to one of the most pressing political questions which has dogged the peace process for the best part of the last 10 years. A question which has a resonance stretching back to the plantation of Ireland in the middle of the 17th century.
Will the incumbent leader of the unionist people of this island, Ian Paisley, form a power-sharing administration with Sinn Féin and the other political parties and put Ireland and its people on an irreversible course to a new future?
With a few days to go to the March 26 deadline - described by British secretary of state Peter Hain as, “devolution or dissolution day” - it is as difficult to answer the question as it is to understand the erratic mind of the unionist people’s previous leader David Trimble.
Paisley’s decades-long record of ‘no surrender’ which has rightly earned him the nickname Dr No has left a legacy of widespread cynicism, especially among nationalists, that he is capable of saying yes on Monday.
Paisley is where Trimble was on several occasions - on the cusp of a deal which has no precedent in Ireland’s long history of conflict. Trimble missed the opportunity to share power with republicans, more than once, by placing too many preconditions on his engagement with them.
His faltering approach, over a protracted period of time, ultimately incurred the wrath of the unionist people. He was cast into the political wilderness and his party plunged into a crisis which they might not be able to recover from.
In theory a positive answer to the power-sharing question for Paisley should be a lot easier to make than it was for Trimble for a number of reasons.
As a result of the assembly election Paisley now stands, as never before, the undisputed leader of the unionist people.
Although he faces serious internal difficulties from those inside his party opposed to the Good Friday Agreement the huge endorsement by the unionist electorate and the dismal election result for those unionist candidates against power sharing has weakened the hand of the DUP rebels and increased the pressure on the DUP to do the deal.
The DUP rebels particularly Nigel Dodds and Gregory Campbell know there is no credible future for them outside the DUP.
They too face a choice - remain in leadership positions inside a mainstream party which could play a full role in shaping the future for the unionist people on this island or lead a rump of fickle individuals outside the DUP and face a similar fate to that which befell Bob McCartney in the recent assembly election.
Dodds and Campbell also know the DUP are leading the unionist people because the party moved, however slowly, away from the politics of ‘never, never’ land to a more positive stance.
This shifting DUP position emerged publicly in the DUP’s 2003 election slogan ‘A fair deal’. It saw them sit in television studios with Sinn Féin speakers, publicly meet the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Dublin, led them into negotiations with Sinn Féin at Leeds Castle in November 2004 and most recently their involvement in helping to prepare Sinn Féin’s motion on policing put to the party’s special ard fheis.
The DUP’s strategy over the last number of years, intended or not, has created an expectation among the unionist people for a deal with Sinn Féin.
There is no significant or organised opposition among the unionist people to the DUP being in government with Sinn Féin. The strong support for the DUP and Sinn Féin at the election was an overwhelming vote for locally accountable government, agreement and progress.
The unionist people know that the new administration waiting in the wings has an all-Ireland Ministerial Council and that the DUP have to be part of that if they want ministerial power in the assembly.
A yes from Paisley on Monday will undoubtedly make a major contribution to ushering in a new era in this country. An opportunity to at last begin a process of national reconciliation between the Gael and the Planter.