The McAleese family and Leo Varadkar have their equivalents in Northern Ireland unionism.

The former occupants of Áras an Uachtaráin and the current Taoiseach coaxed many of us to confront our deep-rooted views about gay people.

Victoria Trimble, daughter of David and Daphne Trimble, and Alison Bennington played a similar "influencer" role north of the border.

In April 2019, DUP leader Arlene Foster deliberately placed herself in the front row of the convention gathering when the party selected Ms Bennington as its first openly gay candidate to contest the 2019 Northern Ireland local elections.

The following month, she was elected to Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council, winning 856 first preference votes and passing the post on the sixth count.

In late October, with her elected representative status intact, Cllr Bennington attended the DUP Annual Conference at Belfast's Crowne Plaza Hotel.

The party was in a trough. The attendance reflected the slump in morale. The chairs in the main arena were arranged to mask the significant drop in numbers from the previous year.

During the lunch break, we chatted in the empty function room. Much of the conversation was Alison Bennington's matter-of-fact account of working and living as the first openly gay DUP councillor.

The most memorable anecdotes were from her childhood years, growing up in the Rathcoole housing estate in Newtownabbey where her pals included Bobby Sands and his siblings. The same Bobby Sands who would die on hunger strike in 1981 and become an iconic figure for Republicans.

During the Saturday morning conference session, Nigel Dodds, the DUP's number two and its leader in Westminster, had made plain the party's opposition to Boris Johnson's proposed Brexit deal.

"Today I give notice that going forward the DUP will look at every proposal, every legislative provision and amendment through one prism and one prism only: How does this best protect the union?"

Soon after, Arlene Foster started her leader’s speech she remarked how, unlike last year, Boris Johnson wasn't a special guest at the event as the DUP had put him "on the naughty step" over his Brexit behaviour.

In last month's UK general election, Boris Johnson reinstated himself as the all-powerful school headmaster and the name of Nigel Dodds was expelled from the roll.

The consequences of a wrong choice

Fools Gold, The Holiday Romance, The Poisoned Apple in the Garden of Eden, The Pay Day Loan, The Too-Good-To-Be-True Offer that proved to be Too Good to Be True - there are countless ways to describe the DUP’s Brexit adventure.

The truth is, unlike England, Scotland or Wales, the other parts of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has a relationship with the European Union through the Good Friday Agreement.

Untangling it was always going to be complicated and potentially dangerous. The issue was not flagged or teased out during the UK’s Brexit campaign.

The mess that resulted is proving many times more difficult than the coping mechanisms and the narrow shoulders of the DUP.

In many quarters there is a response of "poetic justice" in relation to the misfortunes of unionism, particularly its dominant force, the DUP.  

The reaction varies from "you reap what you sow" to "it has been a long time coming" to just "happy days, couldn't happen to a more deserving shower".

But the Fools Gold Trail is a well-trodden path. South of the border we did our own wandering off-piste. That still-unfolding foray also had an EU dimension.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, a reunited Germany required a huge investment programme to transform the dilapidated infrastructure of its newly-acquired eastern territories.  

At the time, the Bundesbank in Frankfurt called the shots in EU interest rate policy and access to low-cost finance became the new norm.

In the northwest corner of the EU, Irish financial institutions became enthusiastic disciples of the cheap money creed. Why offer someone one loan when you can give two?

Euro was handed out like smarties.The loan providers gleefully took their cut. No parish was complete without its own developer.

As the Celtic Tiger preened, one German economist said the Irish are the only nation in the world who are becoming wealthy by selling houses to each other.

A Brussels-based friend, a seasoned reporter with one of the sober broadsheet German newspapers, said ominously, "if you eat three dinners every day, it surely will have negative consequences down the line".

We are still paying for our bout of self-delusion.

The unemployment figures may be impressively low, gin connoisseurs are on the increase and some of the scorch-marked developers are back building and clubbing again, but the commuters from Clonee, Mullingar, Carlow and beyond are still paying the human and financial cost of national folly.

The befuddled politicians struggling with the responsibility to repair the damage continue to be a soft touch for the caricature practitioners.

Unity and the Unknown Unknowns

A new proposition gaining popularity is "the game is up for unionists, Northern Ireland is a failed state and it's time to push for a united Ireland".

The thesis has the catchphrase magic and the questionable value of the Boris Johnson mantra, "Get Brexit Done". Fetch a hammer to solve the Rubik’s Cube puzzle.

The RTÉ/TG4 poll, conducted alongside the May local and European elections, suggested 65% of voters south of the border would back a United Ireland if a referendum were held tomorrow.

Had the respondents or indeed the pollsters ever heard of the system of Motability or Disability Living Allowance (DLA) cars?

Motability is the scheme providing motoring to over three million disabled people and their families in the UK, Northern Ireland included.

Google search any of the main garages in Northern Ireland and it will explain how participants in the Motability Scheme are entitled to a new car every three years, replacement tyres, free insurance and road tax, no cost servicing and repairs, free breakdown cover and two named drivers for the vehicle.

One significant dealer in Northern Ireland says at particular times in the year 25% of his car sales are through the scheme. He also points out that the recipients are receiving no more or no less than their entitlements under the scheme.

Would the DLA system be part of the new Ireland? If yes, who would pay for it?

Stewardship of health policy will be an acid test for Leo Varadkar's administration in the forthcoming general election.

Resources have been stretched to provide free GP access to children under six and to the over 70s. But for the vast majority of citizens south of the border, free access to State-provided health care, from GP visits to hospitals access, is means-tested. 

In contrast, all Northern Ireland’s citizens have free GP access, a no-charge prescriptions system, free access to hospital care, one tenth or less the rate of private health insurance south of the border and the UK's longest waiting lists (300,000 and growing) to see a consultant.

If to date, no Irish government has found the funds and the structures to replicate the NHS model of the UK, Northern Ireland included, what might the 1.7 million citizens expect in the new Ireland?

Michael Collins, the commander-in-chief of the National Army was ambushed and killed by anti-treaty forces at Béal na Bláth in 1922. The same year, on Ben Bulben mountain in Co Sligo, six members on the anti-treaty side were intercepted by soldiers of the Free State Army and lost their lives in what had very obvious traits of a shoot-to-kill policy.

The targeting of Protestant people and their homes was a feature of that same civil war. (The qualification threshold for 'Trevelyn, corn-grower status' was extremely low.)

No series of inquiries or tribunals flowed from the violent destruction of life and property in those turbulent years around the history of the Irish State.

The memories and the painful truths were put aside and not spoken about. Dáil Éireann and a trail of venues around the new State became, and remain, some of the obvious places where difference and discord received a new airing.

Northern Ireland has not been able to settle on such a system to muzzle and bury its disputed past.

Where would its still-actively contested legacy matters sit in the new Ireland? How would the significant cohort of its legal community, expert and actively employed on such matters, see their future? Who would fund the legal actions when the state was no longer a named party in proceedings?

How would residents of the larger part of the new entity feel about funding the policing of the marching season, including the subsidising of bonfires and clear up afterwards in the north eastern corner?

A proposal to introduce water rates so damaged a previous Republic of Ireland administration that the policy was abandoned. Northern Ireland has a finely tuned, operational rates system, water charges included. What comes and what goes in the new Ireland?

Unionism under the cosh

Unionism of all shades has been challenged during the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement. Under the leadership of David Trimble, the Ulster Unionists were central to shaping and selling that treaty, which the DUP shunned.

Gradually, the DUP saw the limitations of being a party of protest. It nudged the UUP aside, achieved the decommissioning of IRA weapons that Republicans had failed to provide for David Trimble and became a leading partner in devolved government.

Since David Trimble resigned in 2005, four men - Reg Empey, Tom Elliot, Mike Nesbitt and Robin Swann - have failed to stop the slide. Steve Aiken took over the role earlier this year. He was the only candidate for the position.  

David Trimble after losing his seat in 2005

The UUP has had no Westminster seat since 2017 and failed under its new leadership to change the situation in the recent elections. Last June, it lost the European Parliament seat held by Jim Nicholson for 25 years.

The May local elections left it with two representatives on the 60-member Belfast City Council. It has ten of the 90 seats in the currently closed Northern Ireland Assembly.

The DUP, in contrast, went on a growth spurt once it showed an interest in power-sharing and the centre ground. Under three successive leaders - Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster - it established and then consolidated its position as the largest party in Northern Ireland. 

But since 2017 the upward trajectory has halted. 

The January 2017 collapse of power-sharing confirmed systemic problems in the DUP relationship with its government partners Sinn Féin and others. The March 2017 Assembly elections resulted in unionists losing their overall majority position at Stormont.

After this month’s Westminster elections Unionists no longer provide the majority of Northern Ireland's MPs for Westminster (DUP 8, Sinn Féin 7, SDLP 2, Alliance 1). 

In Belfast, the capital city, the MP seat distribution is now West Belfast - Sinn Féin; North Belfast - Sinn Féin; South Belfast - SDLP and East Belfast - DUP.

Brexit has accelerated the undermining of DUP dominance. A previously unknown quantity, it has wrecking ball characteristics. Its victims include David Cameron, Theresa May, Michael Heseltine, Jeremy Corbyn, Jo Swinson, Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston.

It has punctured the British Labour party and the Liberal Democrat party and spawned the birth and death of at least two more parties. The medium to long-term consequences of Brexit's destructive tendencies are impossible to predict. 

Will the DUP return to power-sharing?

How will the DUP react to its recent loss of two Westminster seats (Nigel Dodds and Emma Lyttle Pengelly) and the return of no more than a peripheral role for its eight MPs in a parliament when Boris Johnson’s Conservative party has a comfortable majority?

Will it be sore and angry after the ousting of its deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, in North Belfast? The signs are he will take the House of Lords route, not a position in the Stormont Assembly, if he is to continue as a full-time politician.

His wife, Diane, soon to formally lose her European Parliament seat, will slot into the Upper Bann Assembly vacancy created by the election of its outgoing holder, Cara Lockhart, to Westminster

Will Arlene Foster next month lead her party back to Stormont and make what for her may be difficult compromises to sell to her support base? Does she have a choice? Is it not the story that for unionism, the best way to make a case for the short to medium-term future of the union is to rediscover a relationship with the middle ground? On both sides of the border.

John Hume will be 83 on 18 January. His sight, like many aspects of his health, is poor. But he clings on. His SDLP foil, Seamus Mallon, is five months older than him. His chest, with its vulnerability to infections, had a difficult end to the year. But he too will not go gently.  

They have lived through the worst of times and they are above ground to witness a return to fashion of their 'live and let live, let’s spill our sweat and not our blood' values.

Lyra McKee's funeral last April, after the unfair taking of her life, was an example of those values.

A Catholic priest in a packed Protestant Cathedral was applauded to the rafters when he pleaded for tolerance.

Karen Bradley and Theresa May at the funeral of Lyra McKee

Two attending dignitaries, then British Prime Minister Theresa May and her then Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, had never before witnessed the emotional charge of an Irish funeral.

Themselves alone

Excessive, unnecessary pressure to the site of a deep wound can cause it to rupture and create the very real danger of infection. Gentle respectful movement and behaviour allow stitches to become redundant and in time, to dissolve and disappear.

As one year melts into another, the DUP and the brand of unionism it seeks to champion, face a choice.

Its strength over the past 15 years was that it attracted centre ground support on a trial basis. If that backing continues to ebb away, the DUP runs the risk of morphing into a marginalised group of extremists.  

Iad Féin. Themselves Alone.

That prospect of unionism in disarray would not have featured on the wish list of the power-sharer, Martin McGuinness.