By Annie O'Keeffe
For years they have talked of it as the "nightmare scenario" which would signal the end of the Good Friday Agreement. Now, as a result of the December 2003 elections, Northern Ireland is right in the middle of the "nightmare".
Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is the biggest political party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and, which is what matters, by far the biggest Unionist party in Northern Ireland. The DUP has 34 seats to David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party's 24.
In fact, of course, the Northern Ireland Assembly does not meet and for practical purposes now does not actually exist. It has been suspended for nearly a year. It will not be meeting in the calculable future, if it ever meets again.
The Paisleyites oppose the Good Friday Agreement (GFA); they say they want to "renegotiate" it from scratch. They say they will not share power with Sinn Fein until every vestige of Sinn Fein's military alter ego, the IRA, has ceased to exist.
Under the GFA, no powersharing government can be set up without the agreement of a separate majority in both communities.
Sinn Fein, with which the Paisleyites would have to work daily in a restored Six County government, has emerged as the biggest political party on the Catholic nationalist side of the communal divide. They say they will have the deal signed on Good Friday 1998 and nothing but. No "re-negotiation".
Under the GFA, there will be no new powersharing government, not without a near-miraculous quick transformation of the DUP, hot on the heels of the greatest triumph in the long career of Ian Paisley.
It has been quite a career. Paisley began in the 1950s as the despised and derided wild man of Unionist lunatic fringe religion and politics. Educated in the US Bible Belt's "Bob Jones University", from which he got his "doctorate", he was the pastor of a tiny independent presbyterian church who denounced Catholics and the Pope of Rome in the thundering tones of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.
He denounced the Unionist political establishment, then centred in the old Unionist Party, a great monolithic bloc that had ruled Northern Ireland since 1920. It was the Orange Order in politics. Paisley allied with a tiny breakaway independent Orange Order. He spent six months in jail in 1970.
The revolt of Northern Ireland's Catholic majority against being second-class citizens, which began with the civil rights movement of the mid-1960s, started the battering that would smash this Orange-Unionist monolith.
The military campaign of the Provisional IRA (from 1971) accelerated the battering with bombs and guns, until the Unionist establishment crumbled and came crashing down.
Britain abolished the old majority rule Belfast parliament in March 1972 and, wanting to bring the Catholic middle class into Northern Ireland's government, began an attempt to impose mandatory powersharing government on a Northern Ireland entity that had been deliberately shaped to allow Protestant majority rule.
They managed to set up a powersharing government in Belfast for four months at the start of 1974 - until a Protestant general strike paralysed Northern Ireland for nine days (May 1974) and brought it down.
The Unionist political monolith was broken into pieces in the early 1970s by, on one side, the pressure of British governments determined to bring the Catholic middle class into the Northern Ireland establishment and, on the other, the revolt of the mass of Protestants against powersharing with Catholics and the closer links to Dublin and the 26 Counties, which Britain also wanted.
The Orange working class, which had strong trade union traditions, was the most intransigent. The Unionist Protestant leaders who tried to do Britain's bidding found themselves repudiated by the electorate (in the UK general election of February 1974) and then overpowered by direct action spearheaded by the Protestant working class. A number of antagonistic Unionist parties emerged.
In this shipwreck of old Unionism, Ian Paisley, the voice of intransigence and bigotry, raucously shouting "No surrender!", built up support and moved in from the fringes. A large part of the old Unionist party's working-class support switched to Paisley. In 1979 Paisley won a seat in the European Assembly, with a massive Protestant vote.
A quarter century later, Paisley, at the age of 77, is what he has long claimed to be - "the leader of Ulster Unionism". The defection of Jeffrey Donaldson from Trimble's party gives the DUP the Unionist majority at Westminster as well as in Belfast. In the upcoming April European elections, Paisley will certainly win a massive Unionist vote.
Simultaneously, Sinn Fein has become the majority Catholic party. Sinn Fein is very much for the GFA, and has gained much from it. But the Paisleyites will not share power with Sinn Fein.
It took Britain more than a quarter of a century before they achieved the transitory success they won with the setting up of the powersharing government in 2000. It took two years after the signing of the GFA to get it going. Then it repeatedly faltered.
Is this the end of the GFA? Most likely it is, at least of its elements concerning powersharing in Northern Ireland. But it is probably not the end of all attempts at powersharing.
The government spin-liars hold out the hope that the Paisleyites will become "pragmatic" now that they are the Unionist majority. They speculate that DUP leaders such as Peter Robinson, Paisley's deputy, and the new recruit from the Trimble camp, Donaldson, may push for accommodation with Britain and Sinn Fein.
David Trimble says that the Paisleyites are, in terms of powersharing, where he was at "six years ago". The Paisleyites may well change, over time. But to expect the Paisleyites to become other than what they are within the calculable future is whistling in the dark.
A sizeable overall majority in the Assembly - Trimble Unionists, the Alliance, SDLP, Sinn Fein - is for powersharing. What may well happen is that London and Dublin will abandon the GFA's rule that a majority in both communities is required before there can be a powersharing government, and opt for a government based on a simple majority in the Assembly.
Though the Trimble Unionists are no longer the Unionist majority, they have experienced nothing like meltdown. They continue to represent a sizeable minority of Unionists. Strictly speaking, the Trimble Unionists had lost their position as the Protestant majority in the Assembly and Trimble became First Minister last time around in defiance of the GFA rules.
A powersharing government based on a Protestant-Unionist minority and the Catholic majority may be possible. It depends.
Such a change in the basic rules would involve a strategy of marginalising the DUP Unionist majority as an opposition in the Assembly. It would be back to the strategy Britain followed in 1973-74, when the four-month powersharing executive was based on the SDLP and on Unionist politicians who had lost the support of the Protestant-Unionist electorate. Sinn Fein-IRA which was not then concerned with electoral politics was not involved, it had not been allowed to contest the election.
The "marginalised" Paisleyites and others, conscious that they had the support of the big majority of Protestant-Unionists, cut up rough in the Assembly, rioting and swinging punches at their opponents.
When opponents of powersharing won 11 out of the then 12 Northern Ireland seats in the February 1974 election, the moral authority of the powersharing executive was shattered. They still had a majority of Protestant seats in the Assembly. They tried to continue. But the general strike put an end to powersharing for a quarter of a century.
The balance between Paisleyite and Trimbleite Unionists in the Assembly and in the Unionist population is nothing like the balance in 1974. A shift to something like the 1973-74 version of powersharing may therefore be feasible, unless there is a further largescale shift from the Trimbleites to Paisley. Ultimately, it would depend on how many additional Protestant-Unionists would rally to the outcry which the Paisleyites would make against it.
Such a shift from the intricate bureaucratic sectarianism enshrined in the GFA should not cause socialists grief. These developments do not threaten the "peace" which has now lasted for a decade, except maybe if the whole political process seizes up entirely for a long period.
What the whole business once again shows is the absurdity of maintaining the partition of Ireland. The Catholic minority in the Six Counties is an artificially created minority. In a third of a century, Britain has not been able to substitute a system of mandatory powersharing for the Protestant majority rule - in practice, sectarian rule - for the existence of which the Six Counties was created.