It’s time for Paisley to lead or leave

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin were the main winners in the Assembly elections in Northern Ireland this week.

Their gains may have been largely at the expense of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), but the ideals of those two parties were not necessarily the big losers.

In both instances their more radical opposition moved towards the centre. The DUP has been indicating that it would go into government with Sinn Féin, if the latter demonstrated conclusively that it would support the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Having firmly established its hegemony among radical unionists, the DUP has been moving towards the centre ground, where it has eaten into the UUP vote, which declined by almost 34%.

At the same time Sinn Féin has been protesting that it has given up violence for a strictly constitutional path. In the process, Sinn Féin moved onto a nationalist platform previously monopolised by the SDLP.

As a result, it should not be surprising that Sinn Féin gained ground on their nationalist rivals, but the 10% drop in the SDLP vote and the loss of two seats was not as dramatic as the shift on the unionist side.

Probably the most hopeful indication in the elections has been the shift to the middle ground, as epitomised by the improved showing of the Alliance Party, which won seven seats, a gain of one.

At the same time there was the total eclipse of Robert McCartney and the United Kingdom Unionist Party (UKUP). McCartney has enjoyed enormous publicity as a result of his party’s vocal opposition to the St Andrew’s Agreement, but he was utterly repudiated at the polls.

In an effort to exploit his own profile, he not only defended his seat in North Down but also ran in five other constituencies.

His name recognition provided an easy opportunity for those opposed to devolution to register a protest. But he made a disastrous showing. He lost his seat in North Down, and his tally in each of the other five constituencies was largely pathetic. The people of Northern Ireland clearly voted in favour of devolution.

For the past half-century, Ian Paisley has been playing the role of the spoiler in opposing any constructive efforts by one government after another.

He has said “no” so often that he seemed unable to agree to anything constructive, but he is now being offered a position of real power and must face up to the attendant responsibility.

While unionists clearly voted for devolution, there was a discernible drop in their turnout, which could be an indication that those on the ground are becoming disillusioned with the lack of progress.

The British Government has already indicated that its patience is distinctly finite.

A deadline has been set for the new executive to be up and running by March 26.

The message to Mr Paisley is clear — his choice is between devolution with meaningful power-sharing, or the Assembly will simply be dissolved.

The electorate clearly wants devolution.

“The people have spoken, and now the British Government must listen to those who are pledged to democracy and righteousness,” Mr Paisley asserted.

But we have already had too much self-righteous blather.

It’s time for Mr Paisley to get going or move over.

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