Consider the leader of Unionism facing up to a decision which could bring all the people of Northern Ireland into a better future, determined to heal divisions between communities with the prospect of a respected and prosperous place.

No, not 2023. But back in 1968.

Many of us are old enough to remember a famous speech on grainy black and white television (remarkably, 55 years ago) by the then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Captain Terence O’Neill.

“What kind of Ulster do you want? A happy and respected province, in good standing with the rest of the United Kingdom?

“Or a place continually torn apart by riots and demonstrations, regarded by the rest of Britain as a political outcast?” asked O’Neill, who was trying to reform, albeit mildly, a very unsettled place.

“Ulster is at the crossroads,” he said.

Park for a moment that he used “Ulster”, as was common back then as a reference to Northern Ireland, and consider his providential words.

“The time has come for the people as a whole to speak in a clear voice,” he went on.

“I made it clear that a Northern Ireland based on the interests of any one section, rather than on the interests of all, could have no long-term future.”

As a French writer once said: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

So, here we are again, back at the crossroads, and while there is a striking resonance today in the words of O’Neill, other circumstances are very different.

It seems that we’ve met many crossroads in the half century since, and one wonders how many times we’ve taken the wrong road, to the point where we seem lost somewhere.

By 1970, O’Neill was gone as Prime Minister, and society as a whole in Northern Ireland ploughed onto the road of division, which led to bloody conflict with thousands of deaths, many more maimed, and people of all communities left with a legacy of hurt as we spiralled into the misery euphemistically known as The Troubles.

By 1972, the office that O’Neill held – that of Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in the Stormont Parliament set up by Partition a half century earlier – was also gone, as Westminster directly ruled here for the next 26 years.

Despite several failed attempts at power-sharing, it would be 1998 before the historic Good Friday Agreement set up an administration at Stormont again.

Worryingly, it’s now after another quarter century cycle that a regional government so hard-won appears most at threat.

Make no mistake – the decision faced by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in March, 2023 is an onerous one which will impact on all our lives for years to come.

After more than a year of boycotting Stormont in protest at the Protocol, does he accept that the Windsor Framework negotiated by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the EU is as good as it’s going to get, which many feel?

Or does he reject it, and run the risk of losing Stormont, possibly for a very long time?

Unionism rolling the dice again to look for a better deal would seem a forlorn hope.

Who knows if they could tweak some more concessions, but Sunak clearly wants to move on to deal with all his own issues, and he has the power now to push through the Windsor Framework.

Especially now as the influence of the ERG seems to be waning.

There’s an irony in the symmetry of O’Neill and Donaldson facing a crossroads decision, but certain circumstances are different.

In changing demographics, Unionist parties are no longer in a majority, and the east-west relationship between Britain and Northern Ireland Unionism is at its lowest ebb.

And considering the history of Prime Ministers letting down Unionists when it suited, that’s saying something.

It’s often said that over the years that every time Unionists walked away from the table, there was much less on offer when they returned.

And the question that those within Unionism who remain obdurate have never really answered to anyone’s satisfaction is, if they pull down Stormont indefinitely, what is the alternative; because it seems that no devolved government means direct rule from an English Nationalist Westminster, with input from Dublin.

And if there’s no Stormont, what becomes of the role of the DUP themselves?

Regardless of all the party-political ramifications of what is being played out, many people are frustrated that the lack of a functioning Executive is adversely affecting so many aspects of our everyday lives; so it’s particularly scary to think the present Tory Government would have control over the purse strings.

In the context of the here-and-now, as well as the way we’re governed in the future, Sir Jeffrey is in the spotlight.

Cynics will say he has appointed an internal party panel to consult in order to buy himself time and give himself some cover.

There has been some commentary about the DUP’s decision-making process, with the leader appointing an eight-person panel to consider their approach to the Windsor Framework and a return to Stormont.

The panel includes former leaders Peter Robinson and Baroness Foster.

They’re hardly wishy-washy liberals, but the feeling among the commentariat is that the make-up of the panel is from the pragmatic wing of the party.

Robinson, in particular, is regarded as a major strategist throughout the party’s history, and bringing a person of his standing back into the fold is very significant.

Indeed, contrary to public opinion from some quarters, Donaldson himself is a political operator, and is known to favour the DUP being a party of government.

That’s still the case, even if he has privately surprised many observers by becoming something of a hostage to fortune by so closely allying his party to the right wing of Unionism and Loyalism during the Protocol campaign.

Hence, his big decision, and the need to break free from that.

There is clearly a split in Unionism, even within the DUP. While the Assembly members and many others have held their counsel and played a straight bat over the decision, Ian Paisley Junior and Sammy Wilson have been out of the blocks to condemn the Framework.

Junior is Junior, has never been a team player, and has the appearance of a man who just can’t accept it’s not his father’s party any more.

His quick intervention to say the deal “doesn’t cut the mustard” was bad enough, but his appearance on Nolan to explain why he wrote the foreword for the Jamie Bryson think tank was particularly challenging to his party leadership.

Most of the media attention so far has been on various factions – the Loyalist Communities Council, the Orange Order, Jamie Bryson’s organisation, and the TUV’s Jim Allister.

Nobody should be surprised that Bryson and Allister, in particular, are opposed to the Framework as they continue to oppose the Good Friday Agreement.

Interestingly, in the 1968 speech, Terence O’Neill referred to “noisy minorities”, so they haven’t gone away, you know.

Allister has made it clear that given the opportunity to block a Sinn Fein First Minister, he would do it “with a heart and a half”.

Don’t underestimate the fact that there are some within the DUP who remain uncomfortable sitting with Sinn Fein.

Unionism has to face up to two pieces of reality. One, Sinn Fein receives a major endorsement through the ballot box.

And two, there is no prospect of a complete victory in their Protocol war, and they will have to live with the essential elements of the Windsor Framework.

This week, a former Ulster Unionist Minister likened the situation to the decision Unionists faced in 1998 between the “unpalatable and the disastrous.” Another crossroads.

A third fact of reality that Unionism appears to be ignoring is that the so-called “middle ground” is drifting away; in some cases to other parties, and in many cases opting out altogether, and simply not voting.

This is not good for society or the democratic process.

Taking everything into account, one would imagine that saying yes to going back to Stormont is a no-brainer. We will see.

And then, perhaps, the real work will start, and questions need to be asked about the effectiveness of the way we’re governed.

Despite its critics, the Good Friday Agreement remains a remarkable achievement in giving everyone a stake in running this place.

But it needs to be brought up to date, including measures to ensure more stable government.

First things first, though. It’s time to get Stormont back.

And 55 years on from O’Neill, the question remains: “What kind of Northern Ireland do you want?”