Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Will Paisleyism follow its founder into retirement?

Ian Paisley built a movement on firebrand politics and religion. But it’s looking dated, says David Gordon

Ian Paisley has bowed out of the House of Commons, with warm tributes from the great and good ringing out. It seems an apt time to ask whether Paisleyism is also departing the political scene.

Ian Paisley Jnr is bidding to maintain the family firm, defending the North Antrim seat his father comfortably held for four decades.

But the message he and his party are now selling to voters is very different to the old-style DUP creed.

One of the central themes of Paisleyism was to accuse mainstream unionists of being weak-willed, sell-out merchants.

Now the DUP are the mainstream.

Thanks to that 2007 power-sharing deal, they are Sinn Fein's principal partners in government at Stormont.

They are now the ones being accused of selling out — by the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) faction that broke away from the party.

Ian Junior is taking on TUV leader Jim Allister in a distorted re-run of history, with the Paisley name this time up against the hardliners and on the side of pragmatism.

The DUP's slogan in this General Election campaign is, ‘Let's Keep Northern Ireland Moving Forward’.

That phrase would not have been out of place on the lips of Terence O'Neill, Brian Faulkner and David Trimble, past unionist leaders hounded by the Paisleyites.

Times move on in politics, and it's entirely reasonable for politicians to change.

But people are still awaiting a detailed explanation from the Paisley camp for the power-sharing U-turn, and how it can be reconciled with its past — and all the sound and fury it emitted over the years.

Another central plank of old-time Paisleyism involved tying politics closely to a particular brand of religion. That's been fading away from the DUP too.

The Iris Robinson scandal will play its part on that front.

This is a point I've explored in a new edition of my book The Fall of the House of Paisley. It has an extra chapter examining the political consequences of the scandal for her First Minister husband, her party and the Paisleyite legacy.

Sex-and-money revelations are bad news for any political party.

But this is the DUP, with its roots deeply embedded in a stern, censorious brand of evangelical Protestantism.

Although they are not Free Presbyterians, the Robinsons have been very much part of the Paisleyite world, where dogmatic religion and politics were mixed.

When Iris Robinson launched her salvos against homosexuality in 2008 she might have caused some embarrassment to her more media-savvy colleagues. She was in fact staying true to the traditions of her party.

When she first entered political life in 1989, the DUP manifesto carried a message from leader Paisley under the heading ‘For God and Ulster’.

It also stressed the DUP’s opposition to ‘immoral practices’ and referred to ‘recognising the laws of God and the inherent benefits of the Ulster Sabbath as part of our heritage’.

Iris Robinson also clearly believed she had divine approval for her entire political career.

Her fall will presumably help deter DUP politicians from preaching about other people's private lives in future. That’s another sign that traditional Paisleyism is on the way out, along with its founder.

So too is the fact that unionist unity is now very much on the political agenda.

Many observers struggle to see much difference between basic DUP and UUP standpoints these days.

Who would have thought it?

The new edition of the Fall of the House of Paisley was published by Gill and Macmillan this week, priced £12.99

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