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Big Ian’s end of the pier show

Andrew Johnson

28th February 2006

The DUP’s conference cum victory rally the other week was watched more closely than usual by outsiders. Since the Paisleyites have established themselves as the leadership of unionism, it is no longer possible for polite society north and south to ignore them on the grounds that these cranks and misfits don’t represent Middle Ulster. While cranks and misfits may have been in evidence at the conference, it is quite clear now that Paisley does have the confidence of Middle Ulster, except for those who think the old man has gone soft. These were represented in a small way by the fundamentalist picket demanding that the DUP be even more bigoted against gays than it already is, and that DUP-run councils should breach their Section 75 equality obligations by not allowing civil partnerships.

But in fact one of the main areas of interest for observers of the conference was the search for the elusive pragmatists. British and Irish nationalist policy for decades now has centred around chasing the will-o’-the-wisp of “moderate unionism”, with such unlikely champions as David Trimble being touted as peacemakers. Now, with the DUP victory, Paisley’s party becomes the subject of investigation.  Indeed, Tony Blair and proconsul Hain seem to believe the DUP is ready to cut a deal with the Provos.  If Tony and Peter were paying attention to the proceedings, they will have got a rude awakening.

Papa Doc’s keynote speech was vintage Paisley. First he poured scorn on the idea that the Provos had disarmed, bigging up the “Independent” Monitoring Commission report as his evidence. Particularly choice was his reference to what Lord Alderdice delicately calls “political intelligence gathering”, in other words Sinn Fein supporters at Stormont leaking inside information to their leaders. 

Paisley: “The IRA continues its intelligence gathering and directing its spying at furthering its political strategy, yet they expect us to believe that they are committed to democratic means alone. Their continuing targeting of ‘public and other institutions’ should surely be a warning to the Government that the reinstating of Sinn Fein allowances is nothing short of pure folly.” 

As if the DUP hadn’t been in receipt of leaks from the NIO, RUC Special Branch and a plethora of sensitive sources for decades!

Paisley then embarked on an entirely gratuitous tirade against southern president Mary McAleese.

 “Now I do not like the President of the Republic of Ireland. I don’t like her because she is dishonest. She pretends to love this province and she hates it… The President of the Irish Republic who refuses to enter a police station in Northern Ireland should respect the police of Northern Ireland.  She should only enter Northern Ireland under the same terms as every other visiting head of state and she should cease attacking Northern Ireland.” 

The remark about Mrs McAleese refusing to enter an RUC station is somewhat baffling as last year she met Chief Constable Orde at RUC headquarters in Knock, causing the DUP to have a collective fit. Further, Mrs McAleese has bent over backwards to appease unionism during her time in office. The attack illustrates Paisley’s unrelenting bigotry, his determination to prevent any settlement not based on sectarian domination and finally his concern that the DUP continue to quietly pull the strings of the loyalist paramilitaries – McAleese has been networking with the sectarian gangsters of the UDA. 

Amidst a lot of religious embroidery, Paisley also called for the British government to forcibly “smash” republicans, and rather mystifyingly pledged to “de-moustache and de-beard” Gerry Adams. After quoting Lord Carson at length, Paisley then concluded with this appeal to Bush and Blair:

“All around the world today the United States and the United Kingdom are busy spreading the message of democratic values.  I support them in their endeavours; indeed I welcome it.  But I say to Mr Blair and Mr Bush that Northern Ireland will not settle for second best.  We will not accept terrorists in our government.  Those engaged in terror and organised crime are terrorists and must be treated accordingly. I say, as we have joined you in your battle, if you are honest you must join us in our battle.  You cannot be anti-terrorist in the whole world with the exception of Northern Ireland.  There will be no inclusive Executive with Sinn Fein as long as the IRA is in business and engaged in criminality.  The day for the inclusive Executive on such a basis is over for ever.  It is buried in a Sadducee’s grave from which there is no resurrection.  The foundation of the Agreement stinks in the grave, dug with the spade of truth.”

And that definitely does not sound like a man who is prepared to do business. But isn’t Paisley just playing to the crowd at party conference, as some southern observers have suggested? Playing to the crowd he may be, but this is Paisley’s party, created in Paisley’s image, and a huge chunk of the DUP faithful rely on their leader to tell them what to think. The argument that Paisley is duping his base depends on the proposition that Paisley has changed. The evidence is that he’s still the same old Paisley.

Ah, say our optimists, but Paisley is pushing eighty and not as robust as he once was. The bright young stars of the DUP are pragmatists who will be happy to cut a deal once the big man departs the stage. Sad to say, there is little evidence of this either. Deputy leader Peter Robinson claimed to be “committed to ensuring there will be no Executive places for those who have not demonstrably left terrorism behind.” This is the DUP demand that the Provos prove they don’t have any guns left, which is a bit like Saddam Hussein proving he doesn’t have weapons of mass destruction. Robbo continued, “We will focus on the task of replacing the failed Belfast agreement. The agreement lies discredited, impotent and wilted. It is barely alive enough to summon the strength to die. We will put it out of its misery.”

The other modernisers were on equally good form. West Belfast MLA Diane Dodds, speaking on the resolution on policing, argued that there were too many Catholics getting into the police. Fermanagh representative Arlene Foster, recently a member of Trimble’s party, declared that republicans were guilty of “sectarian genocide” and called for more cash to unionist victims’ groups – nationalist victims apparently don’t come into Arlene’s line of vision. Gregory Campbell, another pragmatist, gave one of the speeches in the satirically named equality debate, where he argued that Protestants couldn’t get jobs, Ulster Scots cultural groups couldn’t get money – in fact the Ulster Scots Agency has more money than it knows what to do with – and restrictions on Orangemen marching through Catholic areas were discriminatory to the whole Protestant population.

Jeffrey Donaldson hailed the creation of the Historical Inquiries Team, aimed at investigating unsolved paramilitary offences (like his friend Arlene, Jeffrey referred only to republican offences) while branding the Bloody Sunday inquiry a waste of time and money. Nigel Dodds, speaking in the equality debate, called for action to deliver more jobs for Protestants, and called for “an end to the one-sided promotion of all things Irish and Gaelic”, while arguing that resolving the parades situation to the DUP’s satisfaction was a prerequisite for political progress.

And so on. Worth mentioning, just as an example of how the DUP can’t stop scratching its sectarian itch, is the reaction of the Paisleys senior and junior to a statement by Archbishop Sean Brady which expressed mild concerns about policing, while urging Catholics to put pressure on republicans to end all paramilitary activity. Big Ian took this as a direct threat, saying that “Now the Roman church has been called in once again. The church sees the rise and renewal of resurrected traditional Unionism as a menace to IRA/Sinn Fein”. Wee Ian, in his traditional role of underwhelmingly aping his charismatic father, went so far as to call the Archbishop a “reprobate” and “terrorist sympathiser” with a “bellyful of bigotry”.

What does all this demonstrate? Firstly, it knocks back the hopes of the British and Dublin that a post-Paisley DUP would be brimming over with pragmatic peacemakers. In fact, given the number of would-be successors, the post-Paisley DUP will likely resemble an episode of The Sopranos, with none of the wit or style, and conducted according to the rules of unionism, which dictate that the biggest bigot wins. Meanwhile, the British will continue kicking the Provos in the hope of luring the DUP into some kind of deal, while the Provos continue to pathetically demand that the British make Paisley prime minister whether he likes it or not.

There is another crucial factor, which is inherent in the nature of unionism as a conspiracy to secure sectarian privilege. The DUP have indicated that they would in fact be prepared to do a deal, but that  a restored assembly would have to have the Catholics firmly in the second-class compartment. This runs up against the problem that the Catholic population in the north is bigger and more assertive than under the old Stormont, and unwilling to accept anything less than equality, while the DUP, given any power – either in an assembly or the sort of super Ballymena council the DUP have been proposing to replace the assembly – would discriminate like mad, and to hell with Section 75. So even if the Provo leadership could be finagled into a majority rule agreement – and they seem to be labouring under the delusion that giving Stormont powers over policing would be a progressive move – sooner rather than later the Catholic population would start to get restless, and the deal would begin to collapse under its own contradictions. 

Paisley has demolished the Good Friday Agreement from the right, but for all his ranting he has no path back to the Stormont of old.  This is the circle the British can’t square.



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