After all the mutual backslapping…

A long term reader and commenter, and occasional contributor to Slugger, the Watchman refused to switch allegiance to the ‘New Paisleyite’ DUP and remained sympathic to, if critical of the Ulster Unionist Party. In the first of two pieces, he offers a critique of Paisley’s apparent volte face last Monday:

“We remember how Brian Faulkner walked the same road, that Thou didst deal with him. He is no more above the earth. He died in ignominy and in shame.”

Ian Paisley leading Prayer at the Evening Service of Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church, Sunday 17 November 1985.

Gerry smiled, Ian grimaced. Gerry spoke fluently, Ian was hesitant. Gerry was the victor in this particular confrontation; Ian looked and sounded like a beaten man, there to announce his surrender. It was indeed a defining
moment, and its imagery, content and tone may well return to haunt the old man once the media backslappers have moved on.

At the heart of the “peace process” has been a simple bargain, whereby the UK state would sponsor IRA Sinn Fein’s admission to a power-sharing government in exchange for an end to its armed campaign. This dovetailed with David Trimble’s ambition to strike a lasting deal with nationalism.

The problem that has bedevilled the whole process is that republicanism has not evolved into anything like a democratic grouping and has no reason to do so. Republicanism remains two-limbed. One limb engages in politics and seeks public office; the other limb operates secretively and outside the law. Each limb depends on the other and any negotiating success is derived from the synthesis of the two. Those who talk about the republicans “moving
away from violence” show their failure to grasp that IRA Sinn Fein’s mafia activities are essential to the success of its political ones. Would Sinn Fein have achieved anything without the IRA in the background?

David Trimble believed that IRA Sinn Fein was on a road that would lead to exclusively democratic means. He gambled that its inclusion within the Executive would accelerate the process. He was duly rewarded by a steady
list of reasons why republicans were unfit for office: Florida, Colombia, intelligence gathering and a whole list of below-radar criminality. The result of Trimble’s failed gamble was the inexorable disintegration of the Ulster Unionist Party. But Trimble enjoyed some political cover from the DUP, whose opposition to the institutions was opportunistic and insincere.

As the largest unionist party after 2003, the DUP’s dilemma was how to secure the restoration of devolution, so congenial to it, when it would have to reach a deal with its sworn enemies. Writing in August 2004 before even the Leeds Castle talks, Robert McCartney made some prescient comments.

Given the unlikelihood of the DUP and Sinn Fein cutting a deal by themselves, if the UK government could bilaterally reach an understanding with Sinn Fein on issues like policing (i.e. give in), then Sinn Fein might be able to make concessions that would meet the DUP’s demands.

By 2005, after forty years in the wilderness, Ian Paisley was the undisputed king of unionism. But what would he now do with his power? Amazingly, a change came over him. When the party was allocated three new life peers for
the House of Lords, one of the nominations was Eileen Paisley. By nominating his wife (last elected in 1975) to the best club in London, Paisley had shown a hitherto unseen desire for respectability and an interest in the baubles of patronage. Those in authority who saw him as essential to the reaching of an agreement were delighted. As well as
carrots, the government also used sticks, although significantly only in regard to the DUP. There was no particular enthusiasm in society at large for devolution. So the government decided to do something about it. The public was told that if their representatives didn’t get Stormont up again then their wallets would be raided and their grammar schools wrecked.

Meanwhile Tony Blair bent over backwards to accommodate IRA Sinn Fein in a mistaken belief that the terrorism could resume in the post 9/11 world.

By the autumn of 2006, it was clear that the DUP had given up on its long desired “fair deal”, and was looking for a way to sign up to the Belfast Agreement without loss of face. Ludicrously, the DUP portrayed the St Andrews Road Map as the basis of a fresh deal, rather than a means by which the Belfast Agreement could be implemented. Once it proceeded down this road, it was always unlikely that it could ever retreat. (In fact, St Andrews went beyond the 1998 Agreement with its promise of an Irish Language Act and new powers for the distrusted Human Rights Commission.)

Then Jeffrey Donaldson was quoted as believing that joint authority would be imposed if unionists failed to reach agreement. This pessimism from a senior party officer could only have encouraged the DUP’s opponents to keep
pushing, in the belief that the party would sign up to anything if the alternative was joint authority. It was also a sign that the pragmatists in its leadership were up for a deal, if Sinn Fein would endorse the PSNI, something that always seemed likely, on the right terms.

The DUP soon found itself in hot water. Despite attempts by its spin doctors to bolster the leadership’s position, the party was clearly divided. No one at the heated meeting in Lurgan Town Hall will forget the confrontation between Paisley and Jim Allister. The unrest was halted by the Assembly elections. The timing of the election, prior to the closing of a deal, played into the leadership’s hands because the party did not have to fight a campaign with the internal splits on display. Combined with the capital accumulated by Paisley over four decades, it was enough to steal the thunder of Bob McCartney and his associates. But, despite a career-ending defeat, McCartney’s analysis, that the DUP’s negotiating position would collapse once the elections were over, was fully vindicated – and sooner than anyone thought.

Twenty days after the election, Ian finally revealed himself to be on the side of the pragmatists and was sitting next to Gerry in an optical disaster for the DUP. It would have been better by far to have smuggled out the news in a communiqué and to have acclimatised people gradually to the new order. Instead, an uncomfortable Paisley humiliated himself in a pathetic spectacle. He read out words that he could never have said before and
bathed in praise from a media that had long despised him. Perhaps he might have remembered all the unionist leaders whom he had denounced for doing far less and who duly ended up on the scrapheap.

In all of this Ian Paisley has been assisted by the Ulster Unionists. Under Sir Reg Empey, the UUP has pitched itself closer to the Alliance Party than the DUP. Its unequivocal support for the Belfast Agreement shows (a) its
failure to learn the lessons from Trimble’s demise, and (b) an inability to capitalise on the DUP’s poor negotiation. There is no doubt that Empey, a man who lacks fight, would have signed up to power-sharing even earlier than
Paisley. Now the DUP is poised to complete the takeover of the UUP’s remaining support, even if that is at the cost of shedding its own traditionalists.

In the final half of this article, I will examine the DUP’s negotiating collapse in more detail and the implications for the future.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty