EVEN for seasoned political pollsters, the speed with which unionism got behind DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s decision to return to Stormont was quite something. 

Unionist support for a continued boycott had not only remained steady in the months leading up to the resumption of the institutions – it had been growing. Thus the news in the most recent Lucid Talk poll that two-thirds of unionists back Mr Donaldson’s decision came as something of a pleasant surprise – particularly given negative media coverage which underlined divisions over the party Executive vote to return.

That tells Mr Donaldson, as it tells us, that there is within unionism a surprisingly healthy appetite for a more progressive style of politics – and it further tells us that unionism is in such a state of uncertainty and confusion that it is open to brave leadership even when it seems as if it’s comfortable with dog-in-the-manger politics.

If there was a perfect opportunity to develop that opportunity for change and progress, it lay in addressing continuing unionist suspicion about the Casement Park project.

Atavistic opposition to the GAA in pro-union circles has coalesced around opposition to the most exciting development ever in sport in the North. A multi-use, state-of-the-art stadium that would attract the Euros – one of the world’s most glamorous and prestigious sporting events  – to Belfast with the opportunithy of seeing some of the world’s top teams playing against each other in Belfast would in any normal society unite people around the vision. But from the get-go unionists have opposed the project at every turn – cynically exploiting every issue that arose during design and planning. Even now that that difficult hurdles such as safety, capacity and residential concerns have been cleared, the DUP is determined to do its utmost to block the Casement dream.

Jeffrey Donaldson issued an extraordinary statement in response to Tuesday’s news that Dublin’s Shared Island initiative has stumped up €800m for a range of infrastructure projects across the North. Mr Donaldson’s reaction was on the most generous analysis, suspicious; on a more hard-nosed analysis, it was bitter and hostile.

Already it’s clear that the conflict junkies within the DUP intend to ignore the positive reaction of their constituents to the resurrection of the political institutions; the energy that they wasted trying to keep Stormont closed is now being directed towards another essentially sectarian wedge issue: Casement. And it’s clear that those who tried and failed to derail their leader’s attempts to restore devolution still have an extraordinary ability to lead Mr Donaldson by the nose.

For too long Mr Donaldson did nothing when he was told that it was possible to sell the benefits of devolution to unionists even with the Irish Sea Border in situ. We suggest it’s even easier for him to portray Dublin largesse – and Casement – as further wins. How long will he wait now?