With Northern Ireland once again in politcial crisis and continuing divisions within unionism, we need to consider carefully the consequences, both for the Union itself and for efforts to create a shared future here.
There is increasing talk in unionist circles of direct rule being a preferred option instead of maintaining the devolved institutions. I do not share that perspective, although I recognise that it is a valid choice for people to make. I have a long memory and I recall clearly what it was like to live under de facto Joint Authority, with Dublin Ministers back and forward taking decisions about Northern Ireland above our heads. I do not want to see unionism back in that powerless state again. The current system is certainly imperfect and Peter Robinson has spoken of the need for reform, but the Assembly and Executive both provide unionism with a veto, a veto that has prevented many of the Sinn Fein objectives that would be damaging to community relations here.
The prospect of building a shared future in Northern Ireland, based upon developing mutual respect and tolerance, will be massively undermined if we revert to direct rule. People on both sides will simply retreat into their respective camps and without power sharing to drive it, the process of reconciliation will be virtually non-existent. If we are to build a bridge across the political divide in Northern Ireland, it is in no ones interest to destroy the political institutions without exploring all possible scenarios.
The current arrangements have also enabled unionists to manage effectively the level of cooperation with the Irish Republic on a mutually beneficial basis. As a result, I would argue that north-south relations are more stable and beneficial than they have been since 1921. A return to de facto joint authority under direct rule would set this relationship back many years and seriously damage the prospects for cooperation.
Gerry Adams has stated that he is prepared to collapse the Stormont institutions. Maybe he too sees merit in a return to London/Dublin direct rule! Perhaps Mr Adams aspires to be a coalition partner in the next Dublin Government and as 'Tanaiste', he could then be Dublin's man in 'the North'. A glance at the opinion polls in the Republic shows that Sinn Fein are now on level pegging with Fine Gael at 24% of the vote, meaning that such a scenario is no longer far fetched! Is this form of direct London-Dublin rule really a preferred option for unionists? I think not.
Dissident republicans are also hoping for the collapse of Stormont as they will move very quickly to fill the political vacuum with serious violence. Security briefings confirm this to be the case. Do we really want to go back to those dark days in Northern Ireland? The loss of potential investment and jobs would be catastrophic for our young people who will vote with their feet and leave. This will do enormous damage to the Union.
Peter Robinson has acknowledged the need for reform of the political institutions and we will do our best to deliver the change that is desired within the current political framework. This includes downsizing our governance arrangements and creating a voluntary form of coalition government. However, we also have to operate in the real world which means that republicans and nationalists have their say as well as unionists. Anyone who labours under the illusion that unionism has only to persuade itself, is deluding themselves. Although there is increasing support across the community for maintaining the Union, almost half the population of Northern Ireland are non-unionist in their party political allegiances and we simply can't ignore that fact. What I have not heard from the unionist parties who oppose our viewpoint is how they will persuade Sinn Fein and the SDLP to accept their agenda. With negotiations about to begin again, we need a greater consensus about the way forward than currently exists.
In fact, a divided unionism presents the greatest threat to the Union today. If the results of this years elections are repeated at the General Election in 2015, then Gerry Kelly could win North Belfast, Naomi Long could hold East Belfast and Martin O'Mulleoir is in with a chance of taking South Belfast from the SDLP. For the first time in our history, our capital city of Belfast may not have a single unionist MP representing it. A divided unionism could even deliver an otherwise unlikely victory for John O'Dowd in Upper Bann - indeed I am told that's what local journalists there are speculating. Such divisions mean that Sinn Fein will be on course to become the largest Party, with even more Ulster constituencies no longer having a voice in our sovereign Parliament. We need to think about the consequences for the Union of such an outcome.
These are difficult days and unionism has some hard choices to make. Upon those decisions will turn the fate of the Union and our quest to build a shared future in Northern Ireland.