The DUP’s last minute gamble to leave Unionism without future defence?

The second part of an analysis from our occasional ‘columnist’ The Watchman, in which he looks how all the DUP preconditions lapsed at the playing of the last card in negotiations. He argues that it has left Unionism with no cards left to play if the IRA plays outside the rules of constitutional politics.By The Watchman

Dr No’s Casino Royale – Part 2


(Taken from DUP 2005 election manifesto, capitalised and emboldened in the original)

Ian Paisley built his career on contrasting his own self-image as a man who always kept his word as against other unionists who did not. He has claimed that he regards his manifesto commitments as a binding covenant with the electorate. So we are entitled to hold him to them. In 2003 the DUP pledged to keep “terrorist-related politicians” out of office. In 2005 it declared that “inclusive mandatory coalition government” with Sinn Fein under d’Hondt was “out of the question”. But that was all in a pre-St Andrews world.

After St Andrews, the party’s executive committee in November 2006 laid down a number of preconditions before IRA/Sinn Fein could enter government – notice how “never” had been dropped – such as a credible testing period, a completion of decommissioning and a default mechanism by which Sinn Fein could be excluded. Then the recent Assembly manifesto required “delivery by the Republican movement, tried and proved over a credible period, in terms
of support for the PSNI, the courts and the rule of law” that would be “condition-led and not calendar-led”.

The DUP’s executive committee passed another resolution on Saturday 24 March, very different in tone and content from that of November. The party would merely act in a way “consistent with our renewed and strengthened electoral mandate and based on our manifesto pledges”. This partial retreat paved for the way for Paisley’s formal surrender on the Monday.

In Paisley’s extraordinary statement of 26 March, he announced his intention to form the Executive without any preconditions on a given date. In fact, this had several breaches of the manifesto on which the DUP had just won its great victory. His son and minder bragged that Dad had won a great victory by breaking through Peter Hain’s deadline. But this concession proved that the DUP’s position was indeed “calendar-led”, and not “condition-led”.

There was no mention that the following six weeks would be a time for testing the IRA’s good faith. Of course, a test where failure is precluded is no test at all, for Paisley had voluntarily bolted the door to any retreat. After being love-bombed by people who damned him for forty years, it is inconceivable that he could now suddenly halt the devolution juggernaut. Finally, a “credible period” of testing demands far more than six weeks. If the DUP had safeguarded its interest here, it would have ensured that it remained firmly in control of this timetable.

All of this spells trouble for Paisley and the DUP. It is obvious that the party buckled under pressure. On 25 March Peter Hain boasted that the DUP had asked twice for an extension and was told that the approval of Sinn Fein would be needed. Since St Andrews, the party has been trying to convince the outside world that the leadership’s position enjoyed the overwhelming support of the membership.

But in October, a BBC poll showed that internal opposition to the St Andrews road map stood at 31.9 pc with only 46.6 pc in support. The DUP has not properly prepared its membership for a u-turn far more flagrant than Trimble ever proposed. Paisley may still be certain to get his own way in the DUP. Yet Trimble also won every internal party vote and ultimately it did him no good. Whatever happens, Paisley’s relationship with his party will never be the same again.

But perhaps the deadliest threat to Paisley comes from his new coalition partners. All the evidence – Florida, Colombia, the Northern Bank, the McCartney murder and related intimidation, and the endless below-radar criminality – shows that republicans ought to have no place in government, perhaps not for ever. Does the DUP still believe that leading Sinn Feiners are, to quote its 2003 manifesto, “terrorist-related politicians”? If not, when did they cease to be such?

The party is already finding the limits to Sinn Fein’s endorsement of policing, when one of its MPs attacked the PSNI for making an arrest in connection with attempted murder. Prior to signing up to policing, Sinn Fein negotiated concessions likely to impede the PSNI in confronting the vast network of the IRA’s organised crime. MI5 is to have no role in policing and the Assets Recovery Agency is to be scrapped.

How the DUP responds when the IRA is up to its old tricks will be interesting. The party may well try to play it down, as Trimble did, since it would leave its leader terribly exposed. Paisley is entrusting his political fate to those with a track record for chicanery and lying. As an aside, he is also assuming that it will always be in the interests of Sinn Fein to keep the Executive in existence.

Paisleyism was built upon one man’s ability to fuse together four ingredients: militant loyalism, evangelical Protestantism, anti-elitism and social activism. For forty years it gave him a fervent support base that was the envy of other unionists. Now Paisley has seen off all rivals to be the undisputed king of unionism. Free for the first time from any electoral threat, he is now also free to indulge his egotism and vanity.

He has shown himself incapable of holding any line against the ongoing republican march through the political process. He was bullied by threats and bribed with office more easily than any imagined. His yielding to Hain’s cynical behaviour guarantees that such bullying will be used against unionists, should they refuse to play ball in the future. He has decisively betrayed his base, as shown by his party’s loss of control of Ballymena Council.

However, Paisley has also opened up a niche to the right of him for a strong character to exploit. It is not clear if such a figure exists. But a healthy minority of the larger unionist party disenchanted with developments, even as they stand, is a starting point.