​What a week it has been! The most urgent question is how to steady the political ship after disconcerting revelations about the two biggest parties in Northern Ireland politics.

Published: 2 April 2024

The shock of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson being charged with historical sexual offences has been terrible for the DUP. But at a time when Ireland is about to have a new taoiseach, Simon Harris, who knows little of Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein’s hopes of soon leading governments simultaneously north and south and capturing the Irish presidency are being hit by a slide in the polls. They need desperately to present themselves as past, present and future peace-makers.

The DUP first. Donaldson is understood to plan to contest the charges strenuously but regardless of what the court decides, he’s finished as a politician. But now the dust has begun to settle, Armageddon no longer necessarily looms for the DUP.

Despite pessimistic forecasts, Donaldson had succeeded in winning majority party acceptance of the compromises he accepted to get Stormont back. He had a battle on his hands with the polls showing Sinn Fein seven points ahead of the DUP. But Gavin Robinson was a popular deputy and, as deputy first minister, Emma Little-Pengelly was getting the optics right.

Donaldson had said in a speech at a party gathering in Newry and Armagh at the end of February that people should “feel at home, whether in their Britishness, their Irishness or ‘something in between’”, and that unionism had to promote its cause positively. The best way to do this, he said, was to make a success of the restored political institutions and create a more prosperous society for everyone in Northern Ireland.

Unionist hardliners had failed, as the commentator Alex Kane put it tartly, “to rally round one key figure in the party to do the sort of wreckage to his leadership that he had done to David Trimble between 1998 and 2003”.

The ship is steadying, pessimistic forecasts of a bloodbath over the election of a new DUP leader have given way to an expectation that Robinson will be unchallenged by anyone serious. Sammy Wilson, who had been seen as a disruptor, stated publicly that the party “has a confidence that he can take us through these difficult circumstances. And, of course, we’ll all rally behind him and give him whatever support he needs”.

With Doug Beattie urging the UUP “to stand firm, be focused, do the right thing, not the easy thing”, speculation about a realignment of unionism will grow again.

Meanwhile Sinn Fein, who are sliding in the polls in the Republic, need to deal with much embarrassing evidence that will be scrutinised closely once attention moves away from the DUP.

Here’s a sample. Last week, the BBC documentary, The Secret Army, revealed startling information about Martin McGuinness which will feed the growing suspicions that he was an informant for British intelligence. Read all about it on Shane Paul O’Doherty’s brilliant website: https://irishpeaceprocess.blog

Meanwhile, the Belfast Telegraph’s Sam McBride has found in among newly-released declassified documents in the National Archives a secret memo in October 2000 from Tony Blair’s private secretary concerning how Brian Keenan – IRA arms procurer and psychopathic organiser of spectaculars who had apparently morphed into a supporter of the peace process – while operating as Sinn Fein’s negotiator on decommissioning had been in the US under a false name seeking weapons.

He also reminds us of the information from a biography of Martin McGuinness by journalists Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnson that in 2001 Keenan was involved in setting up a terrorist training camp in Columbia. And that it was alleged that around the same time, Sinn Fein’s Sean ‘Spike’ Murray was central to gun-running in Florida.

On Sunday, I heard the SDLP’s Claire Hannah and the DUP’s Jim Shannon being interviewed for a weekly segment about political frenemies on a Times Radio magazine programme.

Like many others who have appeared in this series, they echoed each other in speaking about how they had genuinely come to be like each other through working together on non-contentious issues for the common good. There was no point scoring. Northern Ireland could do with having more politicians like that.

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