There is clearly considerable unease within the DUP at the private lobbying conducted by Ian Paisley Junior on behalf of his own constituency business at a crucial stage of the St Andrews Talks. The Irish Times tonight quotes a source saying:
“It is fair to say some members, including people in senior positions, are unhappy that stories about Ian’s lobbying activities are continuing to haunt him and the party. Party officers have been keen to distance the party from these stories. They want it to be clear they did not know what Ian was lobbying for.”
And in tomorrow’s Irish Times, comes the news that Ian Senior is to step down as MP for North Antrim. The timing could not be worse for a son who might have hoped to take the father’s seat and perhaps ensure himself some political longevity. As it is, Mr Paisley Junior apparently solo game leaves him particularly vulnerable inside the party.
Frank Millar writes:
A majority of the DUP’s MPs are now privately indicating their belief that this should be sooner rather than later, with some advocating a handover as early as this summer in order to allow a new leader to establish himself ahead of the general election in which the party hopes to increase further its Westminster representation.
However, these calculations cut across Dr Paisley’s declared intention to serve his full four-year term as First Minister in Northern Ireland’s powersharing Executive. Dr Paisley, who will be 82 in April, repeated that commitment during an appearance at the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth last September in direct response to media inquiries prompted by the last burst of internal DUP speculation about his position.
Even among those most impatient now for a change of leader, there is also acknowledgement of some risk that Dr Paisley’s early departure could see the DUP adopt a more confrontational attitude to its Sinn Féin partners in government. Against that, MPs in particular make no secret of the fact that the desire for change has been fed by the “Chuckle Brothers” image that has come to characterise Dr Paisley’s surprisingly warm personal relationship with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
And with the march of time, as one MP put it last night, “there simply has to be a question about his capacity to continue doing the job”. The MP confirmed there was “no plot” to force the pace on the leadership issue, insisting “that isn’t the nature” of the now widespread discussion about the timing of the succession.
Yet, as Jim Allister has noted in a press release last evening, the fact that father and son worked so closely together may mean that Ian Paisley Senior end ups having questions to answer as well. The question of a succession may not go away quite so quickly or as easily as Team Paisley might wish. The press release is worth quoting in full:
“The claim by Ian Paisley Junior that he raised his projects only on the margins of St Andrews and DUP indications that Junior was on a “solo run”, raise the intriguing question of why, if this is so, a Prime Minister, consumed with more pressing matters, would so expeditiously respond “positively”, on the very day the St Andrews Conference climaxed, to matters in respect of which the decision properly lay with local departments? It surely stretches credulity to dismiss a nexus between Junior’s requests and what was going on at that time at St Andrews?
The urgency and positive nature of the PM’s response suggests it was in his interests to respond as he did, as if such a response was conditional on, or in expectation of, obtaining reciprocal positivity from those he was negotiating with. In short, what did Ian Junior promise and deliver him in return, and on whose behalf?
A second major outstanding question is whether he was doing all this behind his father’s back. Is that what we are expected to believe, particularly since one of the undertakings sought from the PM was for government to engage with his father on the future of St Patrick’s Barracks? It seems to me, therefore, that we need much more clarity from both Ian Junior and his father.”
Mr Allister has a formidable reputation both as an tenacious barrister and an thorough-going MEP. And one with the capacity, as one commentator suggested to Slugger yesterday, of striking fear into the hearts of many bureaucrats. And now, perhaps, some of his former party colleagues.