Along-running political joke goes along the lines of — as soon as we solve Irish question, the Irish change the question. It is a jibe with some relevance if one examines the results of a poll carried in this newspaper today.
With the impasse over the transfer of policing and justice powers having been resolved, a new threat to the stability of the power-sharing arrangements in the province has emerged.
Our poll shows that Sinn Fein could well be the largest party in a forthcoming election, which would mean Martin McGuinness being in line for the post of First Minister. But DUP and UUP MLAs have made it clear they would be unwilling to serve under him, even though as Deputy First Minister at the moment he has exactly the same powers as he would have as First Minister. That, of course, would lead to a collapse of the institutions.
The prospect of Sinn Fein topping the polls has created a debate within unionism on how to counter that threat. A large majority of Protestant voters — 63% — interviewed for our poll are in no doubt what should happen, an electoral pact between the two main unionist parties. That would suggest that the Ulster Unionists, who last week dismissed a pact and are remaining in tandem with the Conservative Party, are out of step with a significant number of people in their heartland.
The politicians may argue that opinion polls are of limited value in gauging voting intentions, but the number of people interviewed for our survey is statistically relevant and the results are a snapshot of the current political temperature. What is clear is that Sinn Fein has emerged from the controversy surrounding Gerry Adams relatively unscathed while unionist opinion is much more fragmented.
How unionism reacts to the current political climate will determine if this latest attempt to find a lasting political settlement will succeed, or if, indeed, future generations will still be debating the Irish question.