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There'll be no pushing Paisley into deadline

(Newton Emerson, Irish News)

I just don't see how any of this pressure on Ian Paisley amounts to any pressure at all. Addressing the MacGill summer school in Co Donegal last Sunday, Secretary of State Peter Hain once again went through the list of threats, promises and missed opportunities that will supposedly befall the DUP if Stormont is not restored by November 24.

No doubt Mr Paisley was annoyed to learn that Her Majesty's minister was working on the Sabbath – but the rest of the speech won't have troubled him in the slightest. For a start, the DUP clearly has no intention of working to the November deadline.

If the party has any deadline in mind it is the 2009 UK general election, when it has a good chance of wiping out the Ulster Unionists and a tantalising chance of holding the balance of power at Westminster. Even then it won't view that victory as a position of strength from which to lead but merely as a higher platform from which to jeer at its enemies.

Why should the DUP abandon an oppositional approach that has worked for 30 years if this approach succeeds beyond its wildest dreams? So let's forget about deadlines. Paisley will move when he feels like moving and nothing in Sunday's speech suggests any imminent reason to step off the brakes. Mr Hain began by discussing the education changes that unionists supposedly hate – but this is surely an orange herring. I've seen the queues of Paisley supporters outside our polling stations. They're not exactly a grammar school crowd. DUP voters only object to the abolition of selection because Martin McGuinness signed the order.

Apart from that, they'll hardly miss an exam they all failed anyway.

Mr Hain also hinted that his education policy amounts to gradual religious integration. But that will only annoy DUP voters until the Catholic Church starts squealing about it, after which they will be positively delighted.

The secretary of state moved on to economic and administrative threats surrounding the seven new super-councils, a slimmed-down Stormont bureaucracy and higher rates and water charges. But how is this supposed to frighten the DUP?

It will dominate at least three of those new councils and relish a share of the extra power devolved to all of them.

Fewer Stormont departments means fewer Stormont ministers – but as Stormont's largest party this threatens the DUP least of all. As for higher rates and water charges, the DUP can easily subvert any non-payment sentiment by pitting Protestants against Catholics – unless the NIO tries this trick first, which is only too likely.

Mr Hain also mentioned the 'police precept', a hefty local policing charge added to council tax in England and Wales. However, only a restored assembly is currently empowered to levy this here – and if Mr Hain is thinking of handing that poisoned chalice to the super-councils then it is Sinn Féin, rather than the DUP, which will be hopelessly cornered by the consequences.

Finally, Mr Hain mentioned deeper north-south cooperation and the possibility of joint stewardship if the assembly isn't restored. This is the emptiest threat of all. Dublin has reacted with such panic to the implications that nationalist Ireland's bluff is in serious danger of being called.

There is no prospect of the Republic putting one penny towards Northern Ireland's upkeep so its input will be similarly worthless.

Even the UDA has been summoned to the taoiseach's office for reassurance on the subject, so the DUP hardly has cause for concern.

In fact the worst thing that can happen in the foreseeable future is that DUP stalling generates political apathy among its own supporters and political antipathy among former Ulster Unionist supporters, causing the overall unionist vote to slip behind the overall nationalist vote.

This will trigger a border poll under what's left of the Good Friday Agreement – which unionism will win decisively, while Ian Paisley feeds off the ensuing paranoia like some brain-sucking science fiction monster.

Meanwhile, Mr Hain's wide-ranging reforms will continue – because they are necessary to the long-term viability of Northern Ireland.

So why shouldn't the DUP sit on the sidelines in comfortable, complaining opposition while others take the hard choices, rather than sitting in Stormont taking the blame?

A viable Northern Ireland is what unionism wants and Ian Paisley can step forward to inherit its government once the real work is done. If Mr Hain has any idea how to make him step forward one moment sooner, then he has certainly yet to reveal it.

July 21, 2006

This article appeared first in the July 20, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News