The Rev Ian Paisley met Tony Blair yesterday, and other members of his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will be back in Downing Street today for more talks following last month's Belfast Assembly elections.
Those elections created a completely new political landscape, which Mr Blair and the Northern Ireland Secretary, Paul Murphy, are now reconnoitring, anxiously searching for promising features.
Paisley's election victory made most supporters of the peace process wince. For the moment, two of the four big parties, David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Mark Durkan's nationalist SDLP, have assumed secondary importance.
The SDLP were trounced by Sinn Fein, the republicans establishing themselves as the primary voice of nationalism in the north of Ireland. There is no obvious platform for a revival of SDLP fortunes: the republicans are out in front and likely to stay there. The Ulster Unionists more or less stood still in the election, but were decisively overtaken by the Paisleyites. They are thus now in opposition.
The Trimble leadership has survived, but it is presently bogged down in heated post-mortems and battles with internal critics.
The political scene is dominated by the two big winners, Sinn Fein and the DUP. These were two best organised parties, with the best spread of candidates and the best-planned, best-executed campaigns.
Their commanding positions mean that prospects for movement in the process depend on them. There is a clear Assembly majority in favour of the Good Friday Agreement, but Paisley got a majority of Unionist seats and thus has a veto on forming a government. Almost everything thus turns on the DUP. It could dig in its heels, play it long, and make no real effort to work out a new deal.
In the old days, it would almost automatically have done so, since this is the party of Ian Paisley, the traditional wrecker of deals. British ministers have always despaired of Paisley. The former Northern Ireland Secretary Roy Mason gave a typical ministerial verdict on him: "an oafish bully, a wild rabble-rouser, to many a poisonous bigot because of his No Popery rantings."
Although he is now in his late seventies, the old man can still work up an impressive head of belligerent steam. But the DUP is no longer the one-man party it used to be: it has five Westminster MPs and a fair amount of talent, some of whom have a lean and hungry look.
Figures such as Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds have both modernised the party and conveyed a sense of organised teamwork, which is one reason why the DUP prevailed in the election over the relatively disorganised UUP. The key question is whether a New DUP, analogous to New Labour, is in the making. Paisley himself is not desperate for devolution but others in the party are keen, not least because a DUP person could be First Minister in a new administration.
For all their anti-republican rhetoric, they know there will be no new administration without Sinn Fein. They are pledged not to talk to republicans, but that does not render a deal impossible: David Trimble never spoke to Sinn Fein before the Good Friday accord was concluded.
The Downing Street meetings are primarily concerned with sizing up the state of play within the DUP. The Paisleyites are demanding a full-scale renegotiation of the Agreement: nobody else wants that, but a formal review of its workings will take place in the new year. Most parties want a speedy review, but the DUP will be trying to open it up as much as possible and to renegotiate some of the fundamentals.
The other question is how Sinn Fein views the DUP. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness met Trimble on scores of occasions, but the shift in power within Unionism means they now have to cope with Paisley and Robinson, and at one remove. Like everyone else, the republicans will be studying the DUP to work out the prospects for any understanding. They will be calculating the balance of influence within the party, judging whether Robinson might move and whether Paisley might let him.
Republicans are enthusiastic about devolution but neither they nor anyone else are banking on an early breakthrough. The northern republican vote has doubled in a decade and they expect to make further advances in elections in the south next year. The republicans would like to get the Belfast Assembly up and running again, but there is no huge pressure on them. They are hardly likely to start offering concessions to the DUP unless and until the Paisleyites look like being serious about compromises.
The Trimble theory is that over the next few months the DUP will be exposed as a party incapable of delivering a deal, and that Protestants will then turn again to his party. This assumes, rather hopefully, that the DUP will make errors and lose support. In the meantime, there is no Assembly and no chance of a government for many months. But although there is much frustration in the air, there is also no sense of crisis in Belfast, no palpable fear of a reversion to violence.
Instead, the prevailing sense is one of resignation that months of political exploration lie ahead before the current deadlock can be broken. The peace process may be stalled, but most assume it has enough underlying strength to survive a period of vacuum.
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