Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

DUP must show it's more than just Ian Paisley's party, now the old myths are shattered

Pictured in 2008, DUP leader elect Peter Robinson on the steps of Stormont with Ian Paisley and Nigel Dodds

It is one thing saying, as the DUP has, that Ian Paisley has damaged his own legacy.

That is true; but the more pressing question is how the DUP, as the largest party, will fare without his legend. What can Paisley's party achieve without Paisley?

Until this week the DUP had a simple narrative. Under Ian Paisley it stood firm against sell-out, under Ian Paisley it brought Ulster to peace and now Peter Robinson is continuing in the same tradition. This was a seamless transition in an organisation that was so successful because it was more like a united family than a squabbling political party.

This was the wholesome tale the DUP spun for its supporters, and Nigel Dodds drew heavily on it in his speech to the party conference in November 2008.

"Of Ian Paisley it can truly be said, we will never see his like again. At last night's conference dinner he revealed once again just why he was the leader of unionism for so long. During those years he had at his side a man whose strategic focus and political skills steered this party to the position which it is in today as the largest political party in Northern Ireland," Mr Dodds intoned.

"The torch has passed to a new generation, but the principles and the values of our cause remain constant and steadfast. With Peter as our new leader, building on the strong foundations which Ian has laid before him, this party will go from strength to strength," he added.

Now we hear a different story. "The mighty Dodds" is dismissed by Baroness Paisley as a "cheeky sod" who, along with Mr Robinson, "assassinated" her husband. "His ways are not my ways," says Lord Bannside, now revealed as a grumpy old man, bitter at his inevitable loss of authority.

The DUP's foundation myth is gone; its heroic father figure is shown to be a fallible human being who had to be coaxed out of office and now vainly curses his successors as upstarts.

The real story is more mundane. The timing of Paisley's departure was perfect for the DUP. Dr Paisley broke the tribal taboos by entering government with Sinn Fein, something that might have split the party if Mr Robinson had done it as a new leader, but which was the price of power. The question now is what it is doing with the powerful position in which Dr Paisley left the party after he fell to earth like a redundant booster rocket.

In the intervening years things have, in some respects, slipped back. In August 2008 a hopeful looking paper on victims and survivors was issued by the OFMDFM under Mr Robinson and Martin McGuinness. There was also an early success when they achieved the devolution of policing and justice, but nowadays their two parties are divided on such issues and their relationship often appears dysfunctional.

Mr Robinson promised in his 2008 conference speech to deliver a united community. "We will not solve the problems of tomorrow by refighting the battles of yesterday," he pointed out, adding: "Today we have prospects that no previous generation has enjoyed. Let us never forget how far we have come in such a short period of time or squander the opportunity that we have been given."

These were inspiring words and the post-Paisley DUP needs to deliver on them as elections draw near. In the past the party drew on the legend of the Big Man for legitimacy.

That was becoming a tedious pantomime and the explosive interview with Paisley has brought down the curtain on it in the most decisive manner.

The cost of emerging from the massive shadow of its charismatic founder is that the DUP must behave like a normal political party. That means not relying on a sense of entitlement or some dubious creation myth to sustain it.

The mighty can fall from a great height. That is Ian Paisley's last lesson to his one-time followers.