On the lack of unionist leadership – what would Paisley in his prime made of it?

As Paul Bew has pointed out in the Times(£),  with the NIO a rump and now lacking historic memory in depth, there’s not much Theresa Villiers can do to affect the flags disturbances directly, with day to-day responsibility for law and order devolved to Stormont.  Unless that is, the protests gain wider political traction as a result of Willie Frazer’s exercise in protest tourism and other spasms.  This seems unlikely as the “People’s Forum “ seems as rickety as the unionist one. Willie’s intervention hardly increases respect for his political acumen, even for his own cause.

Imagine what the younger Paisley snr would have made of it: ramping up the protests, demanding a meeting with a cowering minster,  followed by a blistering attack on the minster for the cameras. Then, somehow with his leadership confirmed and little or nothing actually achieved,   easing the tension down with a histrionic appeal to loyalist victimhood with perhaps a soulful claim of a vague death threat  against him thrown in.

Mind you, he knew when to get off offside.  Less noticed was Paisley ‘s Macavity role during the UWC strike when he knew  the threat of uncontrollable  violence by the UDA etc was real  and he hopped it to Canada. All this grand old duke of York stuff made the loyalist paramilitaries loathe him of course but somehow they existed side by side and he finally carried the political day.

Can Peter Robinson in the different context of governmental responsibility pull off a similar trick? He’s certainly taking his time about it.  He just doesn’t provide the same focus as his old boss.  Recalling Paisley emphasises the lack of leadership all round. I’m right I think in saying that up to now  the loyalists haven’t even thought it worthwhile to demand a meeting with  Robinson although Willie may be stirring in that direction .

Are we better or worse off without a Paisley figure? I leave  it to history and personal preferences. What seems clear from this distance is that the ground for the unrest has remained generally narrow and that real  take off hasn’t happened. Paisley tended to marginalise loyalist paramilitary politics such as they were,  by articulating protrest on a wide front accompanied quite early on by a general condemnation of  violence without  ever admitting his own hand in stirring it . Loyalist politics were squeezed into a peculiar  niche of some  progressive ideas mixed with coat trailing and excuses for violence. The late David Ervine made some sense of that position, as DUP Belfast Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson admitted in this  Eamonn Mallie post  a year ago.

It is true to say the PUP is lost without his wisdom and electorally, they have reached their peak. Without David Ervine at the helm, the PUP has struggled for relevance. Without David Ervine, so called loyalists who held him back are now more blatantly snubbing his vision for Northern Ireland.

But those who shared his aims aren’t lost. Loyalism’s contribution to the wider Unionist family will be a continuing tribute to Ervine and his legacy.

Although he tweets , I haven’t noticed  an updated analysis from this up and coming figure. Is he playing the  Lord Mayor above the fray or biding his time?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London