The photograph of Martin McGuinness above dates back to 2005.

During the previous year, there had been a long first negotiation – most of it at arms length with the governments in between – trying to get a once unthinkable agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

That agreement would take a further period of time to make, leading in May 2007 to the first Paisley-McGuinness-led Executive.

A difficult working relationship involving the two parties survived for the best part of a decade – survived the rows over policing and justice, the Maze/Long Kesh project, welfare reform and other issues. It survived until recent weeks.

Now, politics finds itself between a rock and a hard place.
“I don’t believe that the problems created are insurmountable,” MP Ian Paisley told this website.
“We just need good politics and good politicians to get us through it,” he said.

A few days ago, in a blizzard of developments, he found calm words and the right tone to acknowledge Martin McGuinness’s contribution to building the politics of recent years. 

Does that mean he has forgotten McGuinness’s past? No, it does not. 

What it does suggest is that in the here-and-now of the politics of this place, he understands the importance of working partnerships and, post-election, the challenge of re-building.

Another senior DUP figure, spoke to me on the condition of anonymity: “I think it’s going to take a long time to put Humpty Dumpty together again,” he said.
“Anyone, who thinks we are going to resolve the current difficulties within three weeks after a very bruising election, is not living in the real world,” he continued.

“Choosing the election path has closed off a lot of options in terms of resolving these issues in the short term,” he said.

After the March election, three weeks is the time period open to form a new Executive. There is the option of calling a second election, but no one is suggesting Secretary of State James Brokenshire will choose that route.

The Sinn Fein leadership was meeting on Saturday morning ahead of a party conference in Dublin with an announcement due on Monday on who will replace Martin McGuinness after his recent decisions.

“I am not physically able to continue in my current role and have therefore decided to make way for a new leader,” he said in a statement on Thursday.

Michelle O’Neill is expected to step into that role, but this has yet to be confirmed.

On Saturday, it had been intended that she would open a party conference at the Mansion House in Dublin and Gerry Adams would close it. Those roles were reversed – perhaps another reading in the political tea leaves pointing to Michelle O’Neill’s next steps.

What we are seeing is a transition in leadership, happening and having to be accelerated in this period of crisis. 

Beyond the election, there is no easy fix. Republicans are insisting that the institutions can only work in a way that is both “sustainable and certain”. 

This is what is meant by “no return to the status quo”; partnership and power-sharing have to be confirmed and key outstanding issues settled, among them legacy and an Irish Language Act.

Humpty Dumpty was a term introduced into the politics of Stormont in the standoffs and stalemates of more than a decade ago; in the battles defined in the phrase no guns – no government, and then in the fallout over the break-in at the Castlereagh Special Branch office and ‘Stormontgate’.

Politics sat on its wall and fell off that wall at different times.

 Can Humpty Dumpty be fixed this time? Not easily or quickly – not without those ingredients of sustainability and certainty.

 Can it be fixed eventually? 

Think about how unthinkable the Paisley-McGuinness agreement was and how it became possible.
In recent days, in a deepening crisis, another Paisley introduced a different tone into the conversation – perhaps it was intended as a reality check.

Everyone knows that direct rule is not a long-term solution, but in the short-term, after the election, a suspension of the institutions is possible.

So, down the road or up the road, a new agreement will be necessary – an agreement that will only work if based on proper partnership and agreements that have both credibility and certainty.

It cannot be another Fresh Start that becomes another False Start.

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