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Paisley bangs the big drum but unionists are out of step

If you were listening closely last week, you will have heard the unmistakable beat of the Big Drum being played.

Ian Paisley Snr's BBC World Service interview was an early effort to set the 2011 Assembly election campaign narrative. The Pope took a kicking. The Big Man chose his moment well, just as the Blood and Thunder footsoldiers were taking to the streets and the pre-Twelfth walkabouts stepped up a gear.

Whilst the former North Antrim MP was clearly intent on rowing in behind the Orange Order's 'No Pope Here' declaration, his main message was a rallying cry to unionists to stop Martin McGuinness from becoming the next First Minister.

It's a tried and tested routine within unionism. Andrew Boyd identified the Big Drum strategy in his biographical account of Brian Faulkner, whose exploitation of a disputed Loyal Order parade in Co Down helped secure his promotion within the leadership of unionism, a manoeuvre imitated by David Trimble 40 years later in Portadown.

Cynical it may be, but cold calculating minds are needed to succeed in politics, and Paisley's intervention bears all the hallmarks of a preconceived strategy which has the added bonus of benefiting both the DUP and Sinn Fein just as the Executive dominated by both parties enters a year in which unpopular decisions will need to be taken.

Gregory Campbell dutifully fulfilled his role as unionism's angriest man, upping the ante by declaring that he would not participate in an Executive fronted by a Sinn Fein First Minister. Taken at face value, his comments would indicate that another devolution crisis awaits.

This is problematic. Firstly, it suggests that the DUP's support for the shared institutions is tenuous and premised upon unionism retaining its position of perceived supremacy within the office of First and Deputy First Minister. Secondly, it indicates a continuing failure of unionist politicians to come to terms with the outworkings of the agreements - Good Friday and Hillsborough - which have decisively ended any notion of a return to unionist majoritarianism or supremacy within our governing institutions.

This failure to reconcile unionism with the foundations of a shared present and future is currently manifesting itself courtesy of the DUP's refusal to agree to significant changes to local government through implementing the Review of Public Administration, a failing which will cost the Executive millions of pounds in the time ahead. These changes would have altered the face of local government completely, signalling an unwelcome end (for some) to the type of majority rule which defined the first 50 years of the state's existence.

While all strands of political unionism have had to grin and bear the sight of nationalist ministers operating as equals alongside their unionist counterparts, local government councils are the last bastion of unreconstructed unionism.

But the most revealing aspect of the 'Stop McGuinness' campaign is that it assumes the unionist electorate is stupid and can't work out for themselves that it is extremely unlikely that Sinn Fein will surpass the DUP in terms of Assembly seats.

The truth is that Gregory is already serving under a Sinn Fein First Minister, and whether or not an entirely symbolic prefix is attached to Martin McGuinness's official role should not be the issue which defines an election campaign crying out for a battle of ideas to redefine the competing visions of our political parties.

Chris Donnelly is a blogger and former Sinn Fein council candidate