The new political year starts with an already crowded agenda, and a large number of open questions.
The big one, of course, is the inevitable Westminster election, due by June at the latest. From a position of apparent dominance a year ago the English Tories have seen their lead shrink, and now are starting to worry about achieving the majority they thought was theirs for the taking. Attention has shifted to the chances of gaining the support of the Liberal Democrats – but many of their members still see the Tories as the "nasty party". The faltering position of the Tories puts pressure on their new allies in Northern Ireland – the UUP. The Tories will want all the support they can get, and every MP may be the crucial one needed for a majority – but the UUP still cannot get their single MP, Sylvia Hermon, to support the Tory link.
If the weakening of the Tory position is bad for the UUP, then, logically, the DUP should benefit. But the DUP have their own problems. Not least the unexpected announcement by their MP and MLA Iris Robinson that she will shortly resign from both positions. The DUP are thereby faced with the need to find an adequate replacement candidate for her in the Westminster election in Strangford (her MLA post can be filled by simple co-option). Strangford is, of course, a fairly DUP-friendly place, and there are a number of possible candidates including Simon Hamilton and Michelle McIlveen. Jim Shannon, a long-serving DUP stalwart, may be considered too old at this point top start a Westminster career.
The year's agenda will, with dreary inevitability, return to the unfinished business of the transfer of policing and justice. At this point no predictions can be made about how the issue will progress, but if it does not make some progress before June, and if the DUP take a drubbing at the Westminster elections, it will come to a complete halt, with consequential problems for the whole devolution project – one that Peter Robinson now claims is "logical for unionism". Will his commitment to devolution be enough to actually do what is necessary to ensure its survival, though?
The holiday break brought a few smiles to nationalist faces – apart from the departure of the nasty Iris Robinson. An article by Robert Fisk in the English Independent newspaper (and copied in the Belfast Telegraph) compared Northern Ireland with the Middle East and decided that the two situations contain both similarities and differences. However, Fisk concluded that: "I still don't believe in a one-state solution [in the Middle East] – which the Protestant minority will one day have to accept in Ireland, if they have not, subconsciously, already done so – but colonisation leads only to the graveyard. Walls don't work. Nor "superior" religions. Nor ethnic cleansing. History, which should be studied as eternally as false hopes, is a great punisher."