Comment - Warren Little - Forget the squabbling; this is still Paisley’s party

Published: 23 Jan 2014 16:000 comments

“Elderly politician retires from public life”. That was the bland script when Ian Paisley bowed out in 2008.

Warren Little.

But toil and trouble was bubbling away behind the scenes, and only now we’re watching the censored out-takes: ‘DUP kingpin ousted in bitter back-stabbing’; ‘The secret coup by party faithful’. Then there’s a salacious mix of jibing about extra-marital affairs and general beastliness.

If you haven’t seen the sequel to the Paisley interviews yet, don’t bother. Yes, there’s a certain drama in the Shakespearean plot, but it’s all a bit… well, Eastenders. Basically Paisley was politically assassinated by ego-driven, immoral, conspiratorial backstabbers, and right royally shafted by those he mentored for 40-odd years. Or, depending on whom you believe, he wasn’t up to the job and was gently nudged aside for the man who was really doing all the work anyway. I’d give it two stars for light entertainment but it’s not Oscar material.

Last week I mentioned that all of Paisley’s big stunts ended in rancour with nothing achieved. This was no different. The DUP will be blessing Eamonn Mallie’s effervescent socks for the way the whole thing was staged. The first interview shone a light into the curious contradictions, dishonesties and weaknesses of the Paisley mind. With his callous ‘brought it on themselves’ view of the most blood-thirsty loyalist crime of the Troubles – the Dublin and Monaghan bombings – and his hopelessly-belated admission that the civil rights protest was just, suddenly everyone had a reason to dislike Paisley. It gave the hardcore types like Fermanagh’s Ivan Foster further excuse to rail against his compromised principles. It gave everyone else a reminder of the self-interest, deceit and vengeance that belied his charisma.

Only after that did the contents of the second interview slowly emerge, released to journalists and then tantalisingly embargoed until midnight on Sunday. The result was a salivating media hyping up the sheer vitriol of Paisley’s final judgment on his colleagues. The prevailing image was one of rabid, senile cantankery more than genuine victim. The DUP cleverly foresaw this and released pre-emptive statements of feigned nobility, pretending to hold their tongue but hinting obliquely that all was not well upstairs in the Ian Paisley department.

Had the choreography not played out like this, there were parts of the programme that could have provoked sympathy. There were the tears when Paisley’s own congregation turned on him. There was the dilemma Mr and Mrs Paisley (working as one) faced in their decision to go into government with Sinn Fein, with the impassioned reasoning from Mrs Paisley that they had to sacrifice personal friendships to avoid going back to another 40 years of conflict. But all of the earlier chicanery meant that by the time the second interview was screened, Paisley had already been reduced from the unlikely hero of the peace-process to a tragic, embittered has-been. His former colleagues have thus managed to distance themselves from the extremism in the first programme and the bitterness of the second.

So is the DUP sitting pretty? Well not quite.

The trouble is, Paisley’s DNA is all over that party. This is not an ideological schism – merely a personal one. The Eastenders-esque story of his demise makes great gossip and radio-fill for news nerds, but Paisley’s ideology remains at the heart of government.

The interviews reminded us of Paisley’s old tactic of stoking tension to gain power, and we’ve recently seen it replicated in the distribution of leaflets that provoked riots in the constituency Robinson is trying to win back. We were reminded that Paisley was a religious zealot first and a politician second, a position lately adopted by Edwin Poots in his “irrational” decision to ban gay people’s blood donations. We were reminded of Paisley’s attempts to drive Catholics out of ‘Protestant’ areas in the 1960s, a segregationist theme underlying current policies of housing and proliferation of ‘peace walls’ in Belfast. We were reminded of Paisley’s dalliances with unelected hoods like Andy Tyrie, and we see the DUP pandering to the old extremist base once again during the Haass talks. And finally we were reminded of Paisley’s old vindictiveness towards those who ‘took the soup’ from Catholics, which we’ve recently seen mirrored in Robinson’s attack on Jim Allister for a land deal at Brookeborough. Those are Paisley’s malignant legacies, which will affect the ordinary person long after the news nerds have lost interest in the domestic slagging match.

On the good side, perhaps we have also seen a little of Paisley’s final compromise, particularly in Robinson reaching out to the GAA. But the current leadership learned from Paisley’s rise that being progressive in NI is only electorally valued if you start from a regressive state. So every so often the DUP has to step back and get back into bed with its rabble-rousing roots, reconnect, and then seek liberal credit for reaching out again.

Paisley might be off the Christmas card list, but this remains ‘his’ party alright. The ultimate irony is that the current leadership has also learnt from Paisley a ruthlessness in despatching political rivals, and that the biggest rivals are on the inside. So who’s next?

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