Ian Paisley: The Orange Godzilla retires

Submitted by martin on 5 March, 2008 - 11:25 Author: Editorial

Ian Paisley did not jump out of the position of First Minister of Northern Ireland. He was pushed. Nudged, anyway.

He came under strong pressure from the leading circles of the Democratic Unionist Party to go, and go now.

It may be for Northern Ireland politics as if President De Gaulle of France had been assassinated early in 1962, at the time of the Evian agreement that gave Algeria independence after an eight year war.

It depends on whether the power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland, which has gone on very successfully in the last year, really is as "bedded down" as it seemed with Ian Paisley as First Minister.

Without Paisley, the agreement to work the power-sharing system, suspended for five years, would not have been reached, or made to work as smoothly as it has done. In fifty years Paisley had indeed, as he claimed, become "the leader of the Ulster people" - of the Protestant majority, not of course of the Catholic minority.

Paisley started out as a marginal John the Baptist or Protestant Savonarola figure, scourging and castigating the sins of the Unionist Establishment and the timidity and lack of zeal of those Protestant ministers and political leaders who were not, as Paisley proclaimed himself to be, "soldiers of Christ".

He denounced all attempts at a political settlement in Northern Ireland based on power-sharing. He wrecked, or helped to wreck, every move towards easing the Catholic-Protestant conflict, from the mild reforms of Unionist Northern Ireland prime minister Terence O'Neill, in the second half of the 1960s, through the power-sharing government set up at the start of 1974 under the Sunningdale agreement and the constitutional assembly of 1975-6.

He opposed every feeble attempt to move towards compromise after that, all the way to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Through all that, he moved from the fringes to the centre of Unionist politics, battering and trampling everything in his way like the movie monster Godzilla.

He erected his throne as the "leader of the Ulster people" on the ruins of the old Unionism. By the end, he had achieved a formidable power, status, and influence.

In 2003 Paisley's party became the majority party of the Unionist camp, in parallel with Sinn Fein's rise to become the majority party in the Catholic camp. And then, seemingly, he ate his words of intransigence and his vows never even to "sit down" with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA.

Or did he? On one level, yes, he did. But he did not go into government with the old Sinn Fein-IRA. It was a Sinn Fein-IRA that had been defeated in its goal of achieving a united Ireland by military force and, more than that, had been convinced by experience and by the ambitions of its leaders to embrace the parliamentary politics that it had denounced.

The fundamental, the substantial, "concessions" that underlay the power-sharing agreement of Paisley, Adams, and McGuinness all came from the Sinn Fein-IRA side. Whatever elements of personal ambition of the one-time outsider to be First Minister there may have been in Paisley's turn to power-sharing with Sinn Fein, it could not have happened without the political and military collapse of the old Sinn Fein-IRA.

Even with that, the DUP decision to enter coalition with Sinn Fein would not have happened without Paisley's weight and influence. Extreme Protestant groups are as fractious as Trotskyists!

The DUP is far from a homogeneous organisation. There are in it many different currents, including some - and some leaders - who were critical of Paisley's decision to share power with Sinn Fein, and reluctant about the present arrangements.

TV and newspapers have reported the name among Northern Ireland MPs for the good-humoured, jocular rapport between Paisley and his deputy, a one-time chief of staff of the IRA - "the Chuckle Brothers". The name was coined by a leading DUPer, and functioned with some in the DUP as a bitter criticism of Paisley for the relationship.

The pressure within the DUP for Paisley to go was sharpened and strengthened by the involvement of his son and chief lieutenant Ian Paisley Junior in a sleazy relationship with a property developer. But it existed before that, rooted in political dissatisfaction.

And there is a purely religious dimension. Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church - which he founded and leads - bears a relationship to the DUP something like the one which once had the Church of England called "the Conservative Party at prayer".

That church, under Paisley's control, retains weight and power within the DUP. But by no means all DUPers are members of the church. Paisley's most likely successor, Peter Robinson, also a priest, is not. They all take their religion seriously. That is a potential source of disruption.

Robinson has been Paisley's deputy for decades. He is reputed to be a capable man, committed to power-sharing. But he isn't Paisley. He doesn't have Paisley's public standing or his political clout, or anything like it.

A year is too short a time for the system Paisley, Adams and McGuinness set up a year ago to have set in place. That, combined with the fact that it probably wouldn't take much to set the different groups in the DUP to quarrelling and fighting among themselves, may give Paisley's going an enormous political importance - as if De Gaulle had been killed by the opponents of his policy in Algeria before the war had been brought to an end.

As well as that there is the recent increase in the activity of those Republicans who, holding to what was once the Provisional IRA's viewpoint, repudiate the Adams-McGuinness "compromises".

They, however, are very much an isolated, fringe force among Northern Ireland's Catholics. And there is the accelerating economic knitting-together of the Six and 26 Counties into an all-island economy, something which has never existed before. A lot of the fear and antagonism has gone from North-South relations.

There is a powerful feeling in Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, in favour of peace and the prosperity and optimism which it has brought. "Nobody" wants to turn the clock back. It may be that nobody can turn it back.

And yet, in such situations of communal conflict, reckless minorities on both sides - as in Northern Ireland itself in 1968-9 - can spark off each other and over time pull whole societies whose majorities would never have chosen such a thing into the abyss.

Despite the loosening of North-South suspicions and antagonism, giant walls still divide Belfast's Protestant and Catholic areas.

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