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Paisley may play for time but he ultimately wants an agreement

(by Frank Millar, Irish Times)

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern called-it correctly yesterday. The people of Northern Ireland have spoken, and the political path ahead is clear.

There are real grounds for thinking that the Rev Ian Paisley might actually agree to form a new power-sharing executive with Sinn Féin by the stipulated March 26 deadline. For those who like to hedge, however, key DUP strategists suggest the safer bet is that 'the Big Man' will certainly be installed as First Minister by the end of May.

The Irish and British governments, like Sinn Féin, will protest that March 26 is non-negotiable – that the DUP either commits to power-sharing by that date or Plan B, and joint British/Irish "stewardship" of Northern Ireland, comes into effect. Moreover, Prime Minister Blair can also argue that Dr Paisley has less cause now to delay.

The DUP leader's internal critics failed to openly challenge him during the election, while the anti-agreement campaign threatened on the party's right imploded. There are no "unpledged" DUP Assembly Members waiting to take their seats at Stormont. And while some of them privately whispered their doubts about the direction in which Dr Paisley was taking the party – or, at least, about the speed with which he was approaching his intended destination – Paisley prevailed, carried on, and has now won a famous victory. Are the doubters really going to rain on his parade?

Against that, the DUP manifesto stipulated the removal of "terrorist structures" in addition to weapons decommissioning, and that republican "delivery" of support for the police and law and order (still conditional) be "tested and proved over a credible period." And MPs Nigel Dodds, Gregory Campbell, William McCrea and David Simpson have made no secret of their view that the period available between the election and March 26 is unlikely to suffice.

Dr Paisley and deputy leader Peter Robinson (who has been long-term the organisational force behind this now-formidable election winning machine) know that no amount of testing will ever satisfy some in their ranks. There will come a point of decision when they have to disappoint, and probably lose, some of their hardliners. Before reaching that point, however, they will want to divide and reduce those currently coalescing around the strictest interpretation of party policy. Here the dispositions of Mr Dodds and Mr Campbell, in particular, will be crucial. Dr Paisley and Mr Robinson have no intention of losing either talent, indeed are more likely to think to see both shine again in ministerial office.

If timing is key to keeping such people aboard, then the DUP leader will want some further delay. And despite Peter Hain's protestations to the contrary, Mr Blair would surely want to oblige – perhaps with a "shadow" executive settling in over a six or eight-week period before Stormont finally goes live?

We need expect no hint of it ahead of the coming fortnight of long days and late nights at Stormont and inside Number 10, where Sinn Féin like the DUP will seek to wring further advantage before finally committing. And, as observed at the outset, it might not prove necessary. The dynamics within unionism are further changed by the election outcome. The Ulster Unionist Party strikes many as just about finished. Its further collapse under Reg Empey will likely reinforce the drive for further realignment and one unionist party – a development which might not even have to await the post-Paisley-era, given his own occupation now of the centre-ground. In their desperation ('though it would seem with little prospect) once-loyal Trimbleites are suggesting that Empey should go, so enabling a policy switch that would see the UUP decline its ministerial office and go "into opposition".

As of this writing, however, it can be said that the unionist political class is broadly committed to a new power-sharing deal. And as things stand, the internal machinations of the UUP are anyway unlikely to weigh heavily with Dr Paisley.

Mr Blair will see here compelling reason to get on with it. But if he has to delay, he would seem to be taking even less of a risk that at St Andrews last October, when he granted Dr Paisley his election. For the strongest assurance emanating from within, and across, the DUP – as reported in The Irish Times in January – is that Dr Paisley sees no advantage in "waiting for Gordon" and wants to conclude the agreement on Mr Blair's watch.

March 11, 2007

This article appeared in the March 10, 2007 edition of the Irish Times.