Ian Paisley calls himself the “Leader of the Ulster People”. By that he means, leader of the Protestant-Unionist 56 per cent, or thereabouts, of the people living in the Six Counties. Now Paisley looks set to form a Six-County coalition government in partnership with Sinn Fein-IRA.
Paisley is capable of shying away when the moment comes to take the big jump. But all the signs suggest that the “Leader of the Ulster People” is, at the age of 81, about to become First Minister of Northern Ireland, with Martin McGuinness as his Deputy in name and co-equal in practice.
Will this mean general, long-term Protestant-Catholic, Unionist-Nationalist reconciliation and cooperation? Don’t count on it. The Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly showed that polarisation between the Nationalist (Catholic) and Unionist (Protestant) communities has sharpened rather than eased.
On both sides, the communal “extremes” have been strengthened at the expense of the less “extreme” – Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party at the expense of the Ulster Unionist Party, and Sinn Fein-IRA at the expense of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. The liberal Alliance Party has also gained, seemingly at the expense of the Ulster Unionists.
The DUP won 36 seats, up by 4; Sinn Fein won 28 seats, up 4; the SDLP won 16 seats, down 2; the UUP won 18 seats, down 6; the Alliance Party won 7 seats, up 1. The Green Party won one seat, as did one “Independent.”
In the in May, 2005 election to the Westminster Parliament, the Ulster Unionist Party led by David Trimble was almost wiped out by the Paisleyite Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP took nine seats, and the UUP only one. The SDLP, lost ground too but did reasonably well, winning three seats (one of them only because the Protestant vote was split between two Unionist candidates) to Sinn Fein’s five.
The political parties in Northern Ireland now have until March 26th in to agree on a power-sharing government. After that, Britain and Dublin say they will scrap the Northern Irish Assembly and bring in indefinite Direct rule. The idea of Paisley and McGuinness jointly at the head of a Belfast Coalition Government, though it seems close to realisation, still stretches credibility. Whether, forming a coalition Government, they can thereafter work effectively together — not smoothly, just effectively — is a separate question. Any such coalition will be volatile and unstable. The contradictions at the heart of the artificial and, in the long term, unviable Northern Ireland entity “haven’t” — to paraphrase Gerry Adams on the IRA — “gone away, you know”.