Northern Ireland is not simply facing yet another crossroads election, to coin a phrase once used by a former Ulster Prime Minister – it is now entrenched in its own political version of the Alamo.
Like the besieged Texans, at stake is the future of normal Red/Blue devolved politics, namely the Northern Ireland Assembly which had worked smoothly for the past decade.
Encamped outside the walls of Parliament Buildings are the massed Santa Anna-style ranks of traditional Orange/Green sectarian voters, ready to drag Ulster back to the dark days of community strife, bigotry, stalemate and the twin Grim Reapers of Direct Rule from Westminster and Joint Authority from Dublin.
Sounds the perfect recipe for doom and gloom; surely the outcome of the 2nd March Stormont poll can’t be that bad? It is … and worse.
At stake is everything the negotiators who painstakingly pieced together the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ushered in the current peace process.
Even if the voters return the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein as the two largest parties, that is no guarantee a power-sharing Executive will be restored.
Two women hold the keys to progress and peace – the DUP’s Arlene Foster, the outgoing First Minister, and Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Fein’s new Leader in the North.
Both are competent and capable leaders of their respective camps; both have the initiatives to get a deal in place, no matter which party ends up as top dog and secures the coveted First Minister’s Chair.
The key question is – will their supporters and voters allow a deal? Over the past decade of the peace process, Northern Ireland was edging closer to Westminster-style politics, where Red/Blue, labour/conservative policies set the agenda.
But the bitterness is back. The DUP is already canvassing hard playing the Orange card on the need to keep Sinn Fein out; Sinn Fein has reciprocated with its hardline Green card of the need for republican Irish unity.
If no one leaves their trenches after 2nd March, the Stormont institutions will be mothballed again and the Northern Ireland Secretary will implement Direct Rule from London.
Sounds dire, but could that be the solution which gets things done and paid for in Northern Ireland? Stormont has been unable to agree a decent budget; at least London politicians will get the bills paid – but with massive cuts to the public service; this will be austerity with a capital A.
Since 1972 when the original Stormont Parliament was scrapped until the early years of the new millennium, the big moan against Direct Rule was that it was administered by politicians who were not elected by Northern Ireland’s voters.
Given the chaos which has engulfed the Assembly, that might not be such a bad solution to the present crisis. Maybe the large dose of austerity cuts might be the bitter medicine which could make Ulster’s political parties wake up and smell the depth of the debacle and the anger of voters.
But there is an even more doomsday Grim Reaper lurking in the shadows which would spell a deeper economic disaster for Ulster than the slashing cuts of Direct Rule.
With Brexit looming large, Dublin is keen to get its spoke in concerning the running of Northern Ireland. It had a dry run at joint authority in the late 1980s following the Anglo-Irish Agreement which created the Maryfield Secretariat, based near Belfast.
It gave Dublin its first real taste of power at running Northern Ireland since partition in the 1920s. If devolution is not restored after 2nd March, and the British cave in on Direct Rule, the form of joint authority will see Dublin ruling the North like some form of old-style British Empire colony!
That would be the ultimate irony of Irish politics. After nearly 800 years of the English ruling Ireland as part of their empire, we will see a new phrase enter the political vocabulary – Irish Imperialism!
But this, too, is a recipe for financial disaster. The Republic once boasted of its booming Celtic Tiger economy, until it went bust and required a multi-million euro bailout, mostly funded by the British!
Put crudely, the Irish establishment is incapable of running its own affairs, let alone a six-county colony in Northern Ireland.
Then again, a sharp dose of joint authority could be the equally bitter pill which could knock some common sense into the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland, which for generations since the Troubles erupted in the late 1960s indulged in the electorally disastrous luxury of internecine fighting and feuds.
Joint authority could be the solution which finally guarantees Unionist unity – and the creation of a single Unionist Party to represent all shades of pro-Union thinking.
As for Sinn Fein, joint authority could see that movement return to its founding roots of 1905 when it was a party supporting dominion status for Ireland, not hardline republicanism.
Whatever the solution, one fact is inescapable – bitter medicine is top of the political prescription list for 2017.