Belfast Telegraph

Vintage year for Peter and Gerry, the comeback kids

Neither the DUP leader nor the Sinn Fein president could have predicted that 2010 would turn out so well for them, says Chris Donnelly

December's frosty darkness has been conducive to a period of reflection. It is the time to take a summative glance at the past year and begin to peer at what lies ahead in 2011.

Exactly 12 months ago, a long shadow was cast over the Assembly, with the seemingly inevitable collision between a disgruntled Sinn Fein and obstinate DUP on the horizon for the New Year.

The DUP appeared to be looking past that encounter, planning for a showdown with Jim Allister and an apparently rejuvenated Ulster Unionist Party - the latter buoyed by a sense of enthusiasm after its flirtation with the Conservatives.

Then came Irisgate, Liam Adams allegations and the deal to devolve policing and justice - a combination of events which conjured an unlikely political settlement.

Fast-forward to the present and, with a tumultuous year almost behind them, the DUP and Sinn Fein look forward to closing the 2010 chapter with more positive soundings ahead for the twin powers.

Both parties have delivered on a Budget agreement to prove their willingness to avoid shirking the responsibilities of office.

Neither party appears in electoral discomfort, with observers predicting comfortable election returns for the forthcoming Assembly and local government contests.

DUP leader Peter Robinson has laid claim to the 'Teflon' label of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Having survived the blows of the expenses affair, the Iris scandal and loss of his seat to the Alliance's Naomi Long, Robinson has steadied his nerve and reasserted himself as First Minister and DUP leader.

Robinson had always seemed to have a strained relationship with party faithfuls, more accustomed to responding with fervour to the stirring words and spellbinding oratory of populist Paisley than the calculating coolness of his sidekick strategist.

Yet he has emerged from his wounding year with a stronger bond to party grassroots, evident in the reception afforded to the leader at DUP's conference last month.

It has also helped that the DUP's opposition within unionism has self-destructed. Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice has disappeared following a disastrous election, while the Ulster Unionist Party appears clueless. Things aren't going well when the party leader needs to preface his keynote conference speech with the declaration that he is not a political dinosaur.

Factor in the First Minister's cunning attempt to (at least rhetorically) lay claim to middle-ground pet projects like integrated schooling and you begin to get the picture of a party getting comfortable with its newly-found leg-room.

In the green corner, Sinn Fein has reason to approach the festive season in even better cheer. The party's historic by-election victory in Donegal has re-launched its southern strategy, with early performances by Pearse Doherty, and unprecedentedly favourable opinion polling, indicating a potentially groundbreaking Dail election lies in store for the party - a combination of developments which may finally persuade the Louth-bound Gerry Adams to begin planning his departure from frontline politics, bringing closer the transition of modern Irish republicanism.

The evidence of 2010 encourages against so doing, but indulging in prediction remains an irresistible temptation. It is hard to see past a further year of consolidation for Sinn Fein and the DUP in 2011.

History will record that the trials and tribulations of 2010 copperfastened devolution and the spoils from that popular triumph will continue to be enjoyed by the current champions of Orange and Green on Stormont's sloping hills.

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