In a special article for Slugger O’Toole, David Gordon examines the General Election fall-out for unionism – with a couple of quotes from his newly-updated book, The Fall of the House of Paisley. Released over Easter, it has a new final chapter entitled The Fall of the House of Robinson?
Cometh the hour, here comes Arlene?
If Peter Robinson goes as DUP leader, the smart money seems to be on Nigel Dodds as party leader, with Arlene Foster as First Minister. That double act may also shorten the odds on “unionist realignment”, which is really code for the DUP and UUP blending together into a single bloc at Stormont.
Robinson is viewed as a more divisive figure by UUP people than Dodds or Foster – although resentment at her defection still runs deep among some Ulster Unionists.
Saying a single unionist bloc is now more likely is not to suggest it would help produce functional politics at Stormont.
There is not that much to divide the DUP and UUP in policy terms these days. The extent to which the DUP has cast off Paisleyism can be seen by the way Foster took on the role of its Acting First Minister this year with barely an eyebrow raised.
To quote the new edition of The Fall of the House of Paisley:
“She had started her political career in the Ulster Unionist Party. And she is a member of the Church of Ireland – a denomination long vilified by Ian Paisley as being in league with the Pope. Things aren’t what they used to be.”
Foster’s political journey in the last 15 years can be seen as mirroring the way general unionist opinion has shifted. Her deepening antagonism towards the Belfast Agreement led to her moving from the UUP to the DUP, but she would later reconcile herself to a power-sharing deal with Sinn Fein.
Rebuilding the House of Paisley?
Paisley Jnr was always favourite to retain North Antrim. The name alone on the ballot paper – without the Junior attached – was a bit of an advantage. However, the scale of his win over Jim Allister will have undoubtedly boosted his standing in the party.
For the record, The Fall of the House of Paisley was all about the swift collapse of Paisley rule at Stormont in 2008. It said of Junior:
“It may be that he will rebuild the fallen House of Paisley in some shape or form. But it will never stand as tall or as grand again.”
That conclusion still holds. There has been some speculation in recent days about Junior as a leadership contender. This seems highly unlikely, and not just because he has pledged to quit the Assembly for Westminster.
In truth, he is not that popular a figure in the party.
The UUP meanwhile has to decide whether to bury UCUNF along with Sir Reg’s leadership. There will be some who will cling to the concept, blaming the media for its drubbing at the polls. But the fact remains that there are deep contradictions and flaws in the entire UCUNF project.
It involved trying to graft a “national” party onto a localised party that is associated with one section of the community, while proclaiming it as new and non-partisan. It also depended on the illogical notion that all unionists are Tories.
A debate is now needed on how to develop middle-ground politics here. There will be different possible strategies to consider. But UCUNF is surely not one of them.