Since its foundation and most of its history, Paisley was the DUP and at times serious doubts if it could continue in his absence. The gains and growth of the DUP in the last decade have banished any doubts. During that period of expansion Paisley was seen as a help and hindrance to its growth, the foundation stone on which the party was built however a millstone around its neck when trying to attract significant sections of UUP voters. It raises the obvious questions of when will the Paisley era end and to whom will the post-Paisley mantle fall too?Paisley (and his family) are of a strong mind that his era is far from over. He has stated his intention to serve a full-term as Northern Ireland’s First Minister. During the speculation of a general election he confirmed his intention to seek another term as MP for North Antrim. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to face down internal opposition in the Free Presbyterian church but even then hinted at a possible return.
In her review of 07 and predictions for 08 Suzanne Breen speculates that 2008 could be the end of the Paisley era but not an easy option:
“Although he’s now 81, Paisley says he intends to see out his four years in office and has no intention of handing over…Some in the DUP have a different view and point to Paisley’s effective ousting in September as Free Presbyterian moderator…prising Paisley out of Stormont will prove altogether harder.”
Breen also speculates that in terms of the ‘pretenders’ to the throne 2007 was the year that Peter Robinson took a clear lead over the other potential leaders.
“This was the year when Peter Robinson moved well ahead of his rivals. With a meticulous eye for detail and unsurpassed organisational abilities, Robinson was made to be a minister and has excelled himself in the finance department. His professionalism and competence have won him admiration from even those in the fundamentalist wing of the party, who had long disliked him because of his eagerness for a political deal.”
However, the high estimation of the media, civil servants or MLAs does not always mean similar warming of the grassroots (although DUP rules mean a leadership contest need not go to the broader membership). The appreciation of the first two are often taken as grounds for suspicion by sections of the grassroots. His role as the highly efficient internal enforcer within the DUP has left many a bruised ego and simmering resentments. Neither may leadership rivals see the situation as so clear-cut. It has also been a general rule among leading DUP members avoided leadership speculation like the plague for fear of Paisley’s and his supporters ire. If that rule changes in 2008 then the sands have genuinely started to shift.
The chuckle brother relationship and Paisley’s unwillingness to tone it down seems to be feeding thoughts of change:
“Paisley proved that he doesn’t do anything by halves. He confounded the sceptics and cynics with his warmth and bonhomie. It’s certainly caused unease among some unionist grassroots. Senior DUP figures privately say Paisley would be better to adopt a more formal, impersonal approach in his relationship with McGuinness.”
A different form of relationship seems to be expected of a new DUP First Minister:
“Robinson at the helm would be totally different from a Paisley premiership. The relaxed nature of the regime would change…A change of leadership wouldn’t necessarily mean fireworks between the DUP and Sinn Fein, but the nature of business could be affected.”
It seems concern about Paisley’s relationship and fear of a gaffe is not restricted to the DUP:
“Similar work is also under way at the NIO press office, where former journalists are running a very successful campaign to keep Ian Paisley away from the cameras in case his current mood of unpredictable sentimentality alarms the DUP grassroots.”
Unstated is the family linkage, with Paisley Snr comes Paisley Jnr around whom the most significant political controversies of 2007 have swirled. 2008 will show whether this pattern continues or not.
Musings in a politically quiet/dead week with columists looking to fill column inches is one thing but seriously thinking about, talking about it and executing it is very complex. However, the DUP has shown itself to be sufficiently ruthless to guarantee its success, could, should and would the same ruthlessness be applied to its co-founder and leader in 2008?