Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Those criticising the influence of Free Presbyterians on politics should stop complaining and get involved

Peter Robinson gets a standing ovation from his party - one-third of whom are Free Presbyterians
Peter Robinson gets a standing ovation from his party - one-third of whom are Free Presbyterians

I recently tweeted "I welcome and like our Muslim community, yet in a dialogue here are some questions about Islam"... and added an article on Islamic extremist attacks on critics of the religion.

There was no adverse comment from Muslims – it was retweeted and favourited in Bangladesh and Algeria – but one evangelical Christian took mild exception. "I'm not sure I'll ever hear 'I welcome and like our evangelical community' from you. After all, you deem them often 'Caleban'," he replied.

He was remembering an article I wrote a couple of years back about support for the creationist and fundamentalist Caleb foundation within the DUP. I reminded him that 'Caleban' was a joking in-house nickname members of Caleb use themselves and which they told me about. The fact is that members of Caleb who I know were always open and friendly with me, though I have been critical of their stance on many issues, and most of the information I had about the organisation came from open conversation.

All this was in my mind when I spoke at the launch of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest To Power on Tuesday evening.

It is a great book, by Professor Jon Tonge and other academics, which gives endless ammunition for those who want to highlight fundamentalist Christian dominance in the DUP. It quotes one Coleraine councillor as saying that "it's not that Caleb has an overt influence on the DUP, it's just that the DUP has the same views as Caleb".

There is a disarming frankness, a 'what you see is what you get' quality in this comment. All the information in the book comes from DUP members, 75% of whom completed surveys for it.

We find that around a third of DUP members (30.5%) are Free Presbyterians, and slightly more (34.6%) are members of the Orange institution. Since the Free Presbyterian Church has, according to the last census, just 10,068 members, that is a remarkable dominance in our largest party, and it increases as you go up the ranks. For instance, 40% of councillors elected in 2011 were members of the denomination.

This is pretty much a critical mass; taken with other fundamentalist denominations, the church has a profound, but slowly diminishing, influence on DUP policy, which shows through in its stance on a range of issues.

Speaking at the book launch, Peter Robinson, the party leader, responded to me and other speakers by pointing out that the party had changed over the years and predicted that if another survey was taken in 10 years the changes would be further advanced.

At an early stage the party was more or less synonymous with the church, now the influence is still disproportionate, but is being diluted as new members come in.

What, though, does disproportionate influence mean? It is another way of saying that Free Presbyterians punch above their weight. They and other evangelicals do a lot of the hard slog of politics, they make a tremendous input to our civic life, and as activists they tend to get their way.

There is nothing wrong with that as long as they are open about it, which they are.

It puts many other groups in society to shame. Those who decry the influence of fundamentalism on our political life would be better off getting more involved themselves than complaining.

The narrowness of our political class is noticeable, it can hamstring politics and it alienates many. However, the ones mainly to blame for this aren't those who get involved; it is those who complain about them from the sidelines and do nothing.

Iran the winner as West opens a Pandora's box

Who won the Iraq war? Certainly not the tens of thousands of Iraqis who died in it, and not the US and its allies who were forced to leave without finding weapons of mass destruction and without being able to set up a stable Government to replace the dictator they had first supported, then toppled.

The clear winner is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which looks like it's about to become the West's main regional ally.

The US has moved with indecent haste from bracketing Iran in the "axis of evil" to a useful ally in fighting Sunni insurgents. It looks like weakness, and it is weakness. Nobody knows the outcome, we can only hope that the Iranians were never quite as black as they were painted.

The mistakes the West made in the region go back a long way.

One was the US and British intelligence plot to topple Mohammad Mosaddeq, the democratically elected leader of Iran who had nationalised the oil industry.

The military coup in 1953 established the absolutist rule of the Shah and led directly to the revolution in which Ayatollah Khomeini swept to power in 1979.

Saddam Hussein was supported as a counterweight to Islamic Iran, so when the West grew tired of him and invaded it was clear that Iran could be the main beneficiary.

Another fundamental mistake was dismantling Saddam's military and political machine rather than co-opting some members of it after the invasion, as America did in Japan after Second World War. That created a vacuum which has never been filled.

There isn't much choice now. The West has little appetite for a new war, and rightly so. Yet this is dangerous territory. The jihadists, including Osama bin Laden, were Western allies against the Soviets in Afghanistan until they turned nasty. Nobody really knows where Iran is heading and what effect buttressing it will have in the region.

Israel, noting that it is still Iranian policy to wipe it off the face of the Earth, is worried that US opposition to Iran's nuclear programme will now soften. Israel is a nuclear power itself and has in the past hinted that it may bomb (conventionally) Iranian facilities. It has already reputedly used agents to assassinate top nuclear scientists in Tehran.

This is a volatile mix and there must be doubts about the West's ability to control the potent forces it has helped unleash.

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