New Executive faces its most difficult period yet

Friendly working relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein leaderships at Stormont have caught everyone by surprise.

However, there are signs that the so-called honeymoon period

is coming to an end. Political Editor Stephen Dempster

sees signs of developing tensions

While the summer has been a washout for the Province, up on the hill at Stormont the fledgling administration has continued to bask in a metaphorical sunshine.

But look up at Parliament Buildings now and you may just see dark clouds gathering, as ministers and MLAs prepare for the new Assembly term which starts next month.

Images of DUP leader Ian Paisley joking with Sinn Fein's ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness (leading to the nickname "the chuckle brothers") may have startled everyone and pleased the chattering classes.

But they have also left many unionists (including those who accept a deal had to be done) feeling uneasy and it is from there – and within the slightly unsettled ranks of the DUP itself – that an icy wind is forecast to blow.

Take MP David Simpson's threat to name a high-ranking Sinn Fein politician as a British spy, involved in murder, as a weather vane for times ahead.

While the Upper Bann man has a primary (family) motive for wanting to point the finger at the senior republican – in that he believes that person was behind the murder of his cousin Frederick Lutton, near Moy, Co Armagh, in 1979 – there are other ways to go about seeking justice, apart from using the parliamentary privilege to bring public pressure to bear on the case.

Indeed, given that we are now in a new era of understanding between the DUP and Sinn Fein, it may have been anticipated that Mr Simpson would have preferred to let other lines of inquiry – including a complaint now lodged with the Police Ombudsman and an investigation by the Historical Enquiries Team – take their course.

But instead, the MP has chosen the more controversial path of confrontation with republicans which belies the tension within sections of the DUP, over what has become viewed as an overly cosy "work-in" with Sinn Fein at Stormont.

And while first and foremost he may be driven by personal emotion and a sense of injustice, Mr Simpson has also been able to put clear blue water between himself and hardline unionist allegations of treachery emanating from his constituency.

And it is unlikely he will be the last DUP member to do so.

Inside the party, over the summer, there are others who are saying the new Stormont administration has "got off on the wrong foot", in terms of DUP-Sinn Fein relations.

And they are clear that the honeymoon is over and that the days of the so-called "a laugh a minute" must now end.

One senior DUP figure has expressed the view that there are messages out in the country which cannot be ignored.

He believes the party may have become a little cocooned at Stormont since May and needs to pay more attention to its grassroots again.

He said: "While there seems to be a considerable unionist backing for our position, there is a very considerable number who have concerns which need recognised.

"On the one hand, there is a vociferous minority of hardline unionists who once voted for our party but disagree with power-sharing and will not accept Sinn Fein in Government. They will never be satisfied.

"But then there are those with deep religious convictions who find it very hard to marry power-sharing with republicans and their spiritual beliefs.

"Victims and former security force members and their families will also have their views on our party's engagement with Sinn Fein.

"Finally, there is a broad swathe of unionism which supports us and says 'get on with the job' but does not like the way in which our party has possibly looked a little too comfortable in its relationship with Martin McGuinness and others."

All of that, said another DUP figure, "is going to stop – there is a very definite feeling within the party that that sideshow is over".

And, during the months ahead, there are going to be plenty of issues upon which to bring the feelgood factor to an end.

Gerry Adams' March for Truth has set the ball rolling and angered unionists and victims alike.

Moderate DUP members are among those annoyed by such displays, in part because it makes it more difficult to defend the current power-sharing arrangements.

Significantly, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson – viewed as being on this moderate wing – has signalled his intention to raise the matter of the rally with Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde at a Policing Board meeting in September.

With republicans now represented on the authority, he will demand to know what is being done to apprehend those who took part in the event dressed in paramilitary-style uniform and brandishing replica weapons.

He will also question the Parades Commission about breaches of the law at the march.

Meanwhile, in October, Mr Simpson is expected to "name and shame" in Parliament and the festering row over the National Stadium at the Maze is due to erupt that month too – around the time of the closing date for submissions for rival stadium plans.

The development falls under DUP Sports Minister Edwin Poots' watch, but with his hands likely to be tied by party colleagues opposed to the so-called republican shrine at the site, the matter is headed for the Cabinet table and a cross-party war of words.

Add to that the Irish Language Act which – at last year's St Andrews talks – Ian Paisley vowed his party will not accept and never agree to, even though the UK Government tabled it to appease nationalism.

Throw in the review of parading, the Review of Public Administration (on which Sinn Fein alone seeks seven super councils) and the real elephant in the room – the looming May deadline for the transfer of policing and justice powers to Stormont – and there is the real prospect of stormy days ahead.

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