“All political careers end in failure” may have been a maxim attributed to Enoch Powell, the leader Unionism never had, but it may be that ex-Stormont First Minister Ian Paisley senior, now Lord Bannside, is an exception.
The firebrand former leader of the party he founded, the Democratic Unionists, used two interviews on BBC Northern Ireland to fire broadsides at those within his own ranks he has accused of forcing him to quit the posts of First Minister, DUP boss, and Moderator – or leader – of the Protestant fundamentalist denomination he founded in 1951, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster.
Now in his 80s, plagued by health problems in recent years and confined to the backbenches of the House of Lords, ironically Paisley has committed the cardinal sin on which he had frowned throughout his political career – airing the party’s dirty linen in public. Like any political movement, his DUP has had its share of splits, rows and factions. But, to the media, the DUP was always united.
The fall of Paisley, to be replaced by his long-time deputy Peter Robinson, the current First Minister and former East Belfast MP, has seen the modernising wing of the party take over from the once dominant Christian fundamentalist faction.
Even Paisley’s brand of Free Presbyterianism was seen as the DUP at prayer. Although it had only around 16,000 followers out of an Ulster population of one million Protestants, its influence within the DUP was substantial. Under Paisley, discipline within the DUP was Stalin-like. The same had been true of the party under Robinson – until now. The fallout from the two Paisley interviews could see a revival for the fundamentalist faction.
While Paisley himself may never be back at the helm of either his party or church, exposing and attacking those who forced him from office will have massive repercussions for the DUP – and Unionism – with European and council elections looming in May.
The success of the present Stormont Executive is reliant on the DUP and Sinn Fein working together and holding the so-called middle ground of Ulster politics. If Paisley’s fundamentalist fans seize the initiative, the impact will be to force the DUP to the radical right, thereby putting an intolerable strain on its working relationship with Sinn Fein.
While Sinn Fein has been able to contain political opposition from dissident republicans, and a revival of the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party, the DUP has been unable to control the growing tide of working-class Loyalism away from the power-sharing Executive.
The DUP had no option but to declare the recent talks hosted by American diplomat Richard Haass a failure. While Sinn Fein has adopted the Haass proposals, Robinson’s DUP has had to reject them to maintain party unity and discipline.
In May’s elections, all Sinn Fein has to worry about is republican voter apathy. The DUP has to contend with a range of rival pro-Union parties. Unionism currently holds two of the three Ulster Euro seats. Protestant disillusion and a split Unionist vote could put one of those seats in jeopardy.
The DUP rose to power by playing up the fear factor. Since 2003, it has won Stormont and Westminster elections by campaigning on a “Stop Sinn Fein” platform. So what will be the DUP’s focus in May?
The Robinson clique will champion saving MEP Diane Dodds’ seat by branding the other parties as splitters. But Paisley’s double whammy has put Robinson’s leadership under tremendous stress. And his outbursts have DUP grassroots members to ask privately question if Robinson is still the right leader to win elections.
Paisley loyalists think they have a strong hand because even though there is a wide range of pro-Union parties, none of them is in a strong enough position to replace the DUP as the lead Unionist party. If the pro-Paisley camp succeeds in replacing Robinson, could that encourage rival hardliners in Sinn Fein to view Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, the architects of the republican peace agenda, as approaching their sell-by date? The focus is on the revival of the religious fundamentalists in the DUP. Is anyone watching the Young Turks emerging in Sinn Fein?