Real reason DUP's Ian Paisley decided to strike deal with Sinn Fein
In December 2005, I had the honour of being a guest at the civil partnership ceremony of Shannon Sickles and Grainne Close at Belfast City Hall. It was a joyous occasion – not least because it was the first-ever such ceremony in the UK.
However, what all present regarded as a badge of pride for Northern Ireland was seen by others as an abominable development: the most vehement of these was then DUP leader, the Rev Ian Paisley.
The occasion had been made possible by the Civil Partnership Act passed at Westminster in October the previous year. During the Commons debate, Rev Paisley had intervened: "The minister will be aware that in all political parties in Northern Ireland there is opposition to this Bill... Why is the Bill not going to be left until the Assembly is up and running again so that the people of Northern Ireland can make the decision themselves?"
Equality Minister Jacqui Smith replied that the fact that the Assembly was not yet up and running meant that the matter still fell within the remit of the Westminster parliament.
Herein lies the key to understanding the conversion of Rev Paisley to the acceptance of power-sharing.
The 180-degree about-face by the DUP leader astonished observers of virtually all political persuasions in Britain and Ireland and farther afield.
Rev Paisley had built his political reputation and career on Bible-and-brimstone rhetoric against the notion of allowing republicans into government. But, just 15 months after Shannon and Grainne had emerged from the City Hall into a blizzard of confetti and cheers, there he was, cheek by jowl with Gerry Adams at Stormont announcing a bright brand new day of DUP-Sinn Fein partnership.
Virtually all commentators reeled in delighted disbelief at his born-again transformation into a force for tolerance and reconciliation.
But Rev Paisley may have seen the occasion in a somewhat different perspective. Perhaps as he sat civilly alongside his new partner, he was murmuring contentedly to himself that, under the new dispensation, there would be no further abominations imposed upon Northern Ireland over the heads of his people.
Acceptance of power-sharing was a price which Rev Paisley was willing to pay in exchange for a veto over progressive legislation.
Had he not agreed to power-sharing, direct rule from Westminster would have continued, with the ever-present danger of further anti-Christian – as he would have seen it – innovations from across the water.
The structure of the institutions envisaged in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement offered the DUP its veto. Strand One of the agreement spells it out that the biggest party within the unionist or the nationalist bloc can stymie any proposal it finds abhorrent through the mechanism of a petition of concern.
The outworking of this arrangement was on display in the Assembly's abortion debate last month. DUP members concentrated their fire not on Sinn Fein, which had introduced a petition of concern to thwart a pro-life motion from the DUP and a number of SDLP and Ulster Unionists. DUP MLAs directed their heaviest fire not at Sinn Fein, but at Stephen Agnew of the Greens and – more angrily – at Anna Lo of the Alliance Party (she being a woman and all that) for helping the Shinners make up the necessary number for a petition (30).
In one of the few interesting speeches on the day, the DUP's Jim Wells jeered at Ms Lo for signing the petition when, as he pointed out, Alliance was in no position to benefit from its use.
"The Alliance Party votes will count for nothing in an hour's time, because, when a petition of concern is tabled, the votes from the middle, non-aligned parties do not count. It is entirely a headcount of nationalists and unionists."
For as long as this is the case, political allegiances in the north will continue to be constructed solely, or mainly, around the idea of communal identity – not at all around sets of belief of no direct relevance to the particular interests of the community to which one 'belongs'.
Thus, the pattern of politics which preserves orange-green hegemony and marginalises those who fail to fit into either category has been reinforced.
And the biggest battalions on either side have been given special powers.
Small wonder the senior Paisley chuckled.