Even if DUP boss Sir Jeffrey Donaldson pulls off a festive outcome which sees Stormont up and running sometime before the Scottish Hogmanay celebrations, he will have to contend with a split party.
There will be those who will back the deal to restore Stormont, and there will be those who think there should be no Stormont at all until the Irish Sea Border is entirely scrapped.
The DUP currently has 25 MLAs and the key question will be how many of them will be in the party’s Stormont Yes camp, and how many in the Stormont No camp? Would there be enough in the No camp to trigger yet another DUP leadership coup which in the past saw both Arlene Foster and Edwin Potts toppled?
Given Alliance calls for a reforming of the Stormont designation system, how many of the remaining Unionist MLAs from the UUP’s nine, the two Independent Unionists and Jim Allister of the TUV could Sir Jeffrey rely upon to form a new alignment of pro-Assembly Unionists?
This third realignment in Unionism could decide its future direction for at least the next decade.
Indeed, this is not the first time Unionism has divided into the Yes and No camps. The first real alignment came in the February 1974 Westminster General Election shortly after the Sunningdale power-sharing Executive had been formed by ex-Northern Ireland Prime Minister Brian Faulkner, the SDLP and Alliance.
Faulkner’s brand of Unionism became known in that General Election as Pro-Assembly Unionists. Opposing him were three Unionist parties - the UUP, DUP and Vanguard, which comprised the so-called Treble UC, better known as the United Ulster Unionist Council, or Unionist Coalition.
While Faulkner’s Unionism was seen as the Yes camp to Sunningdale, the UUUC was the so-called No camp firmly opposed to Sunningdale.
The February 1974 election result was an overwhelming victory for the No camp, with its Unionist candidates taking 11 of the 12 Commons seats on offer.
While Faulkner’s Yes candidates scored 94,301 votes, or 13.1%, and no seats, the UUUC No camp had a combined vote of 366,703 votes or 51.1%, with only SDLP leader Gerry Fitt’s West Belfast bolthole alluding the No camp.
The second realignment of Unionism along Yes/No lines came in 1998 in the first Northern Ireland Assembly elections. In spite of a strong vote in the earlier referendum for the Good Friday Agreement, the gap between MLAs elected in Unionism for the Yes and No camps was considerably narrower compared to 1974.
The Unionist No camp was initially estimated at 28 MLAs compared to 30 pro-Agreement Unionist MLAs.
The No camp was comprised of the 20 DUP, five from Robert McCartney’s United Kingdom Unionist Party, and three MLAs from the United Unionist Assembly Party.
On paper, the UUP which was largely pro-Agreement under the late David Trimble had 28 seats along with the two MLAs from the Progressive Unionist Party.
However, what the Yes camp did not take into consideration was the small number of anti-Agreement Unionists in the UUP ranks. That figure at times tipped the balance either in favour of No camp Unionism, or resulted in an even split leading on one occasion for some Alliance MLAs to re-designate as Unionists to help the pro-Agreement camp win a vote.
However, in 2023 the real danger for Yes Stormont Unionism could come not in the Assembly chamber itself, but in next year’s expected Westminster General Election.
Any split in the DUP ranks could see the Stormont No camp putting up candidates against sitting Unionist MPs in constituencies where the DUP candidate was seen to be in favour of the Stormont power-sharing Executive.
Such a split vote could see previously safe Unionist seats captured by either Sinn Fein or Alliance.
Another danger for the DUP and Sir Jeffrey in particular is that unlike when former leader Rev Ian Paisley signed up to the St Andrews Agreement and entered a power-sharing Stormont Executive with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as his deputy, a number of DUP activists defected to Jim Allister’s hardline Traditional Unionist Voice.
Ironically, Sir Jeffrey could face a situation in the DUP which he faced in his anti-Agreement days in the UUP. This is that rather than quit the DUP, the Stormont No camp forms a pressure group within the party.
In the years immediately after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the anti-Agreement UUP faction formed the Union First pressure group, with the pro-Agreement lobby rallying behind the Re:Union group.
The same situation faced Rev Ian Paisley in his fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster denomination which he founded in 1951.
After Dr Paisley entered the power-sharing Executive, rather than quit the Free P Church, many TUV supporters remained inside the denomination - a move which ultimately led to Dr Paisley having to ‘retire’ as Moderator of the denomination, a post he had held for much of the denomination’s existence.
Taking the latter as a benchmark, could any realignment within Unionism into Yes/No Stormont camps have a knock-on effect on Protestant denominations?
Put bluntly, could Stormont Yes MLAs face opposition in their places of worship from Stormont No camp worshippers, leading to splits in churches and the formation of new, independent churches?
In practical terms, both politically and denominationally, who has their foot on whose neck as we enter the festive season of good will to all men?
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.