Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

A party in power can't play the Ian Paisley game

No hiding place: Lord Bannside may be able to paper over past mistakes

As they reflect on the Paisley interviews, the DUP will have a chance to judge how bad decisions which seemed easy at the time look a few years later.

They should bear Paisley's shambling special pleading in mind when deciding how to handle the Haass proposals on flags, parading and the past. It may seem logical, even principled, to stand firm on every issue with an eye to the May elections, but they now have wider responsibilities.

Ian Paisley, Lord Bannside, attracted little sympathy when he attempted to justify his opposition to everything, from the civil rights movement, to rival unionist leaders, Margaret Thatcher and the Good Friday Agreement. He has talked in the past of a mission from God and long-term vision, but it is easier to analyse his actions on the basis of short-term considerations.

Peter Robinson, his deputy, provided any strategic overview in the early years. In contrast Lord Bannside thought mainly in tactical terms.

There is a quotation attributed to Stalin in which the Soviet dictator said politics is like fighting with a bayonet "when you feel fat you push, when you feel bone you pull back".

Paisley's tactics were a little like that. He put himself at the head of every opposition movement that could carry his career forward and when the going got tough he frequently walked away. When he called the second loyalist strike he pledged to withdraw from politics if it failed, but when it did fail in 1977 he was abroad and no more was heard of his resignation.

He was supposed to lead the disastrous invasion on Clontibret in 1986 but when it came to the bit he had urgent business in America. He left Clontibret to Mr Robinson who was arrested in the Republic and forced to pay a fine to get out of jail. Lord Bannside is clear that he never supported violence but many loyalist paramilitaries do cite his fiery rhetoric as a spur to their involvement in illegal activity.

They compare him to the Grand Old Duke of York who marched his men up to the top of the hill and then marched them down again.

At every stage he did what seemed necessary to take him to the next stage of his career. The biggest example of pulling back when he felt bone may have come when he entered government with Sinn Fein, after years of denouncing previous leaders of unionism who contemplated power-sharing with the SDLP, or so much as talking to republicans.

Life is lived in prospect and judged in retrospect. With the benefit of hindsight his actions appear inconsistent and opportunistic, and history is written in hindsight not in the heat of the moment. Yet historians are likely to make some allowance for the fact that Ian Paisley led an opposition movement during a period of violence with no local elected assembly in place and with the union under threat.

That excuse isn't available to the contemporary DUP. They have inherited a lavishly provisioned devolved parliament in Stormont, they are the dominant political force, there is peace and, as they like to point out, the union has never been more secure.

The imperative is to keep this vehicle between the hedges and ensure that their hard won advantages are not squandered.

Being a governing party involves smoothing out difficulties, managing change and cutting the best deal available at any point. A governing party cannot grow stronger or consolidate its position by exploiting discontent like the opposition movement Ian Paisley led in the dark days of the last century.