When the Chuckles had to stop (Part 1)…

The Watchman is a keen observer of Ulster politics for many years now and one who has written extensively on Unionist politics. Now, in two parts written especially for Slugger, he exams in detail the nature of the party that gave rise to Paisley, and now post Paisleyism.By the Watchman

“Then the angel of the LORD went forth and smote in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred four score and five thousand and when they arose early in the morning behold they were all dead corpses.

“So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went and returned and dwelt in Nineveh. And it came to pass as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god that Adrammelech and Sharezer his sons smote him with the sword and they escaped into the land of Armenia. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead.”

Isaiah 37:36-40 (as preached upon by Ian Paisley on 17 November 1985 at Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church)

Two summers ago, next to the pool of a Spanish villa, I read Enoch Powell’s 1977 biography of Joseph Chamberlain. The book is best known for its endlessly quoted final sentence, the one about all political careers ending in failure. Much recent media comment has centred on Ian Paisley, the supposed pantomime villain turned dashing hero. People, who had denounced him for decades, queued up to pay their often greasy tributes.

He was said to have bucked that famous Curse of Enoch. Rubbish. He went because his own party had turned on him, a semi-tragic victim of egotism and self-delusion. These failings cut Big Ian off from his old supporters and left him defenceless in the face of a savage internal putsch. Although their repercussions are still to be worked out, they are set to change unionism for ever.

Paisleyism grew as a powerful fusion of four elements: militant loyalism, Old Time Religion, anti-elitism and social activism. One man gave it physical embodiment in its long march to victory. But he also gave several intriguing glimpses of possible moderation, most notably over voluntary coalition and at Humphrey Atkins’s round-table talks.

These flirtations posed questions. What would he do if he had all of unionism to himself? How would he act if he had no possible rival? What would happen if Paisley was free to indulge his notorious egotism? New questions arose with the passing years. Did his recovery from serious illness fuel a sense of destiny? Did he see himself as a modern Moses leading his people to the Promised Land? But eventually we did learn something. Once he became the leader of unionism, his opposition to power-sharing and to Sinn Fein in government vanished like spring snow on Slemish.

The DUP may have opposed the Belfast Agreement in 1998, but carefully calibrated its opposition once it realised that the UUP was in electoral decline. By 2004, the Robinson wing was ready to cut a deal with Sinn Fein and rumours emerged of secret talks, though officially denied. Paisley seemed unconvinced of the merits of a deal at this point and the negotiations of that year ended without success. He was politically lucky. Neither the reformed Executive nor First Minister Paisley would have survived the Northern Bank robbery. But he would shift his position and by St Andrews in 2006 he was clearly committed to share power with Sinn Fein when he judged the moment to be right.

Most media commentators have failed to get properly to grips with Ian Paisley’s downfall. There are two reasons why. The first is that many of them, perhaps due to secular backgrounds, simply do not grasp how religion has shaped his followers’ concept of leadership. Many thousands of people did not back Paisley for decades just because he articulated their loyalism or their Protestantism. Rather, they saw him as a modern day prophet, God’s Man for the Hour.

This gave Paisley a backing denied to any other unionist leader, a political immortality for as long as he could keep hold of this constituency. It explains the comparative ease with which Paisley finally got his power-sharing Executive. His oldest followers in the country simply could not grasp what was coming. As for those in closer proximity within the top ranks of the DUP, with one key exception, they could not or would not cut loose from him. (Trimble’s biographer Dean Godson savaged them as “Calvinistic caricatures of illiterate Sicilian peasants believing in Papal Infallibility”.)

But the second reason for the confusion is a failure to understand the political structures of the DUP and the way in which they operate. The DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church are highly secretive bodies where dissent is whispered and rarely found in the media. Paisley’s biographer Clifford Smyth is one of the few who does understand this culture. Smyth has described Paisley’s role as akin to an “Irish chieftain of old, commanding total loyalty from his tribe”.

The DUP and Fianna Fail share a “democratic centralism” and he noted that “(b)oth parties are unforgiving to those who speak out of turn, or buck tight internal discipline”. Leading DUP figures have often said that the family atmosphere of the party has ensured any disputes are resolved around a metaphorical kitchen table. But Smyth’s notion of the tribe is more significant because the top of the DUP is dominated by several dynastic families jockeying for position. This is a crucial point of division in the DUP, more than the bogus “religious v. secular” divide. Paisley Senior, as leader, provided an equilibrium that the party will miss without him.