Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, progress towards normality, stability and self-government in Northern Ireland has, at best, stuttered along. Although the majority of people on the island of Ireland have always supported the idea of a power-sharing arrangement between nationalists and unionists, unionist voters and politicians have been less convinced of its long-term benefits.
In the years since the signing of the agreement, David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) has steadily lost ground to the more uncompromising Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by Rev Ian Paisley. This trend culminated late last year in the eclipse of the UUP by the DUP in the assembly elections. Side by side with this development, on the nationalist side, the moderate Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) has been overtaken by the militantly republican Sinn Féin. With two such uncompromising parties to the fore of Northern Ireland politics, the future for any power-sharing deal looks uncertain.
Mark Harkin spoke to Susan McKay, author of Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People (Blackstaff Press, 2000) and columnist with Dublin's Sunday Tribune to get her assessment of the state of play in Northern Ireland.
The conditions under which the DUP would be prepared to sit in government with republicans – unconditional surrender of the Provisional IRA – cannot be delivered by Sinn Féin (and the DUP knows it). It looks as though the DUP is prepared to forgo the opportunity to govern Northern Ireland if it means Sinn Féin gets no say in the running of it either. Is the DUP's position a true reflection of how the unionist electorate feels about the peace process?
The DUP has made its name on simple messages: 'No' and 'Never'. It has cast itself as the righteous outsider, ground down by tyrants, starting with the mild mannered Terence O'Neill back in the 1960s. All efforts to reform Northern Ireland to give Catholics equal status have been met with warnings about the 'Romeward trend' and the 'road to Dublin', and wrecked.
The 2003 elections to the Northern Ireland assembly have changed things dramatically. The DUP is now in power, if it chooses. The Reverend Ian Paisley or his deputy, Peter Robinson, has the right to be First Minister, with four other ministerial positions in the executive. The DUP cannot claim to be the persecuted underdog any longer, and much of its Biblical rhetoric to that effect must now be dropped. This is a great victory but it presents problems.
The DUP has played heavily on the fears of its supporters – only the Big Man, God's designate on earth, can save Ulster. Now he has to do it.
It is clear that the DUP wants to take power – but in the short term, it wants more to finish off the Ulster Unionist Party, once known as 'the unionists'. The defeat of the UUP in the assembly elections was sweet. The defections to the DUP of leading Good Friday Agreement unionist, Jeffrey Donaldson, along with a couple of colleagues, was sweeter still. But there is more to be done – the EU elections are in June. Paisley isn't standing – a huge effort will go into getting his replacement, barrister Jim Allister, elected. Then there are the Westminster elections, probably next year. The unionist bloc in Westminster is already predominantly anti-agreement, but there are weak UUP seats the DUP wants, and knows, it can get. It seems unlikely that the party will soften its line towards Sinn Féin in the meantime. Like Sinn Féin, the DUP is prepared to take the long view. It will sit in government with Sinn Féin eventually, but isn't going to change a line, which has got it this far.