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Ian Paisley: Welfare dispute has made Assembly toxic to many

The Secretary of State's admission to me at Westminster this week that "things are grave" is another warning that the political institutions in Northern Ireland may not survive.

In my view Sinn Fein is in a corner of its own making. The options going forward are fairly obvious but can be spelt out as follows:

1: If the Assembly runs into a crisis and the resignations of either the First Minister or Deputy First Minister precipitate an early election and nothing changes in terms of the budget, then collapsed institutions become inevitable and direct rule of some sort will follow.

2: In the early days of the "peace process" and before decommissioning and Sinn Fein's support for the rule of law, a collapsed Assembly inevitably provoked fears of a return to violence. That is not now on the horizon. After all, Sinn Fein has crossed the Rubicon so it can't go back! The once real fear of a return to violence being removed means Sinn Fein's previous most powerful tool has rightly been removed so it is emasculated on this issue.

3: Abstentionism from Westminster and the removal of Sinn Fein's top team from parliament effectively means it is further emasculated in any role it could play under a direct rule scenario.

4: If the Assembly struggled on to an election in the Republic of Ireland and Sinn Fein does well in that election, that mandate changes nothing in Northern Ireland in terms of the impasse over the budget. A good election in the Republic for it does not lead to a single penny more into the NI economy. In fact, the general response will be in the UK "so what".

5: If the election in the Republic is not so good for it, or is "as you are", that simply means it's even harder for Sinn Fein to get itself off the hook it is on. It will be more difficult for it to U-turn and implement the Stormont House Agreement that it welched upon.

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For unionists the picture is only marginally easier. The fact is unionists need to be in control of the province, even with all the checks and balances that the current regime imposes.

After all, local people can run this place more effectively than direct rule ministers. However, the fact is the welfare dispute has made the Assembly toxic in the eyes of ordinary people. Despite all the positive work the Assembly engages in and the local connection it has with the community, its toxicity over the current crisis has damaged its stock in the unionist community.

I got that on the doors during the Westminster election. No matter how good the news and effort of local MLAs and ministers, the neverending crisis on simple management and holding to agreements made has undermined the further success of the Assembly.

Unionists, too, must be aware of the fact that direct rule is no paragon of virtue for us. Direct rule was never our real friend.

The Republic will seek a role to play in this arrangement. That will cause concern. The DUP's strength at Westminster will, however, come into its own, so a period of up to five years of direct rule could be a real possibility.

Direct rule will most certainly end our corporation tax advantage, and remove the significant modifications we achieved in terms of welfare reform. Water charging will become a reality. However, the dispute over education selection will most certainly be resolved in our favour.

Any renegotiation will result in more give and more take. A change to some of the structures would be welcome but there is no guarantee of that. Importantly, the Stormont House Agreement is the only real blueprint of where things will end up.

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