Paisley out after ten months
9 March 2008
Ten months from the St. Andrews agreement to the ousting of Paisley. This is imperialist stability?
There is one overwhelming reality underlying the ousting of Ian Paisley as first minister. That reality is that it has taken just under ten months for the new settlement in the North of Ireland to engulf first a junior minister Paisley’s son, Ian Og, and then the Chief bigot, Ian Paisley himself.
This is not a reality that many want to accept. Crisis? What crisis? is very definitely the official line, and many alternative explanations have been advanced to give reasons why the First Minister had to depart without his departure having to have any implications for the survival of the new structures of British colonialism in Ireland.
By far the most popular of these explanations is the outstanding and very public stories of corruption and greed surrounding the Paisleys, both father and son. The stories were certainly very spectacular. The mindless greed was such that Paisley junior was gaining an MLA and ministerial salary and was paid a third salary by his father for duties as a researcher that he could not possibly have carried out. Ian Og’s father in law was paid vastly inflated sums for office rent for the Paisley’s office. Stories abound of deals involving a local property developer and attempts to sequester public land. Perhaps the most embarrassing was the revelation that, at the periphery of the St. Andrews talks, Ian Og had lobbied to ensure that a local property developer would gain control of public facilities around the Giant’s Causeway landmark and the Tony Blair had in fact given assurances to win his support for the new government.
There is no doubt that these revelations were extremely damaging. Perhaps the final straw within the party that led to Ian senior’s departure was his decision, after his son’s departure in a cloud of allegations of dishonesty, to reappoint him to the Policing Board! However to advance corruption alone as the explanation of Paisleys departure carries little conviction. The fact is that the DUP is a party of corruption. The next in line to the leadership, Peter Robinson, recently made himself unpopular with his neighbours by selling his back garden in a property speculation. This is perfectly legal but show truly outstanding greed in a family that holds, along with his wife Iris, control of Ministerial, MLA, Westminster, European MP salaries alongside control of the resources of Castlereagh Borough Council.
That’s the small print. The DUP has all the features of any bourgeois political party magnified by the fact that it lacks any programme outside the assertion of sectarian privilege. This assertion of Protestant rights disguises a deep-rooted class hatred of the lower orders and a conviction that the duty of the state is to provide largesse for the Protestant bourgeois and petty-bourgeois. It would be astounding if every DUP public representative was not involved in the sorts of deals that the Paisleys were running, with slightly less arrogance and stupidity and more concern about the deals becoming public. In fact the original property deal involving the Giant’s Causeway was supported by fellow minister Arlene Foster and by the DUP in Stormont. It only became a hot potato after the storm of publicity.
More significantly the whole St. Andrews session, that finally tore up the Good Friday Agreement and established the new Stormont parliament, was nothing but a Dutch auction where the DUP put forward their demands and were granted them, subject only to Sinn Fein being allowed to sit in the government. The whole process was corruption on a grand scale, modified only by the British instance that Sinn Fein be allowed to cling on to seats in the government. The whole current settlement is founded on corruption. The more flagrant examples provided by the Paisleys were only icing on the cake.
A more plausible explanation lies in the rise of the ‘Chuckle Brothers’, a name gained by First minister Paisley and deputy first minister McGuinness because of their habit of constantly laughing in each others company. This habit caused incomprehension and anger in the Paisleyite grass roots, who saw the role of their party as bringing about the physical destruction of Sinn Fein rather than sitting with them in government. It was greeted with pleasure by the British and Irish governments, who took it as a sign of the stability of the process. The British interpretation flew in the face of the facts – the DUP conference had been postponed for two years to deny a platform to opponents of the settlement and Paisley had already been ousted as leader of the Free Presbyterian Church that he had founded.
In fact the chuckle was widely misinterpreted. The chuckles by Paisley and McGuinness had no connection with what each other was saying and seem simply to represent the embarrassment of two men who saw each other as bitter enemies and had no stratagems for dealing with the situation. McGuinness boasted that Paisley never said a cross word to him. He neglected to mention the fact that Paisley never managed to address him by his name, referring always to the derogatory ‘Deputy’.
Even the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ were dismissed as a minor irritant both inside and outside the DUP until the Dromore by-election. The DUP suffered a shattering blow when they lost the seat because of the intervention of Euro MP and former DUP leader Jim Allister and a new group - Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). The TUV won almost a third of the vote and their transfers won the seat for the Official Unionists. The blow, made worse by the fact that Allister was operating far outside his own base, indicated a standard phenomenon in the North. The British propose a settlement in favour of unionism. The nationalists agree immediately. The unionists object and the process moves to the right. Eventually in a panicky conclusion, the unionists win the vast majority of their demands and a government is set up. Down the line is an electoral test which shows that a significant layer stand by the original programme of a protestant parliament for a protestant people and are unable to stomach nationalists in government.
As things stand, Allister is poised to explode the current settlement. All he has to do is to replicate his vote across the board. In that case the DUP would lose their current dominance and there would be a 3-way split in unionism. The outcome would be a Sinn Fein first minister and the British would immediately collapse the parliament – a fact that should tell us all we need to know about the democratic credentials of the Irish peace process.
The ouster of Paisley rolled out fairly rapidly from the Dromore result. The party leadership, on a trip to Lisbon, demanded and got the sacking of Ian Og. There was then a fairly public dispute about the continuation of Paisley senior and a letter was circulated calling for his resignation. It quickly became clear that Paisley had no support and he announced his departure.
We are told that none of the above matters. The St. Andrews deal was the product of the new DUP, specifically of the modernisers and pragmatists led by Peter Robinson. They needed Paisley to sell the deal and if he has had to be sacrificed as a sort of heatshield then so much the better. After a short bump the new Stromont will finally bed itself in and see off its opponents.
We should beware of stability that rests on the characteristics of a unionist leadership. We were told that David Trimble had the authority, coming from the right of unionism, to sell the GFA. Then we were told that Paisley, as the chief bigot, with no significant forces to his right, was the man to secure the new deal. Now we are told that it is the moderation and pragmatism of those who toppled Paisley that is a guarantee of success, ignoring the fact that the DUP is very much a coalition and that it will almost certainly show a tendency to fracture in absence of the overwhelming dominance of Paisley.
It is however worth looking more closely at the motivation of the incoming Robinson leadership. They are all people who made their political careers in bringing down British settlements that they felt did not fully guarantee their sectarian privilege. Many helped bring down the Sunningdale agreement and they have all had a role in bringing down the Good Friday agreement. They were not punished by the British for their intransigence, but rewarded with roles in numerous quangos. With the arrogance of those born to rule their pragmatism consists of a burning desire to govern and to have control of all the levers of patronage and power that this brings. The desire to govern is not in any sense matched by a desire to share power with Sinn Fein.
The current dispensation rests to a certain extent on Britain meeting all their conditions and assuring them that, by signing up to government, they would be able to stymie any concessions to nationalism. Sinn Fein would be forced to sign up unconditionally to the state and the police. The DUP in government would be given majority rights and would be able to oppose an Irish Language Act and any suggestion that class divisions in education would be relaxed. A concomitant of this blackmail approach is that it is much less effective when the only threat open to the British is that they would suspend the government that they spend decades installing.
In the aftermath of the Dromore by-election the DUP defended their record by listing the ways in which they had nullified all the demands of Sinn Fein. Ian Paisley’s valedictory address was a long list of the same points. Peter Robinson’s first interview in the period following the Paisley resignation was a promise that nothing on the Shinners wish list would be granted. Indeed, he outlined a detailed strategy for forcing them from government, starting with using the majority position in government to freeze out all their requests and transfer funds to the Paisleyite heartlands where they belonged, through restructuring government to cut the number of MLA’s, departments and ministers and ease Sinn Fein towards the door, to finally approaching the British with the claim that the government had become unworkable and it was time to restore unionist ‘democracy’.
Once we understand these processes we understand the underlying process that means that, despite Paisleys departure, there is no immediate crisis. There is no immediate crisis because Sinn Fein are so thoroughly defeated that they have only one demand – that they be allowed to stay in government. They have had no difficulty in signing up to an utterly right wing economic agenda that will see a massive transfer of funds from public to private hands. They can be snubbed and humiliated but they will refuse to notice. All their claims can be rejected but the idea that they will walk out of government is unthinkable. Sinn Fein were alone in calling for a campaign to defend Paisley and save him from his fate. They were alone in their fulsome eulogies to the great statesman who allowed them back into government. They were alone in looking forward to doing business with Peter Robinson. They are alone in failing to notice the Paisleyite boasts of having established supremacy. There is really no immediate possibility that Britain will agree that people so useful, so harmless, will be cast into the outer darkness.
In the longer run things are more problematic. One of the most hilarious commentaries following the Paisley resignation was that of Castle Catholic and former Policing Board member Denis Bradley, currently charged by the British with finding a way to bury their crimes during the Irish War. Paisley’s coming or going was of no consequence, he wrote, because the foundation of the process was the dominant voice of Irish capital in the form of the Dublin government.
This is idle dreaming on a grand scale.
If the Unionists can convince the British that stable government depends
on the ousting of Sinn Fein and further convince them that Sinn Fein have
fragmented and demoralised nationalist workers to such an extent that there
is no possibility on any comeback, then Sinn Fein are history. The
role of the Irish government will be their historic role of agreeing with
whatever their dominant neighbour proposes.