Belfast Telegraph

Can showman Sammy Wilson become the next leader of DUP?

By Liam Clarke

The words were those of Sammy Wilson, explaining to me why the Rev Ian Paisley was shaking his fist and bellowing at me at a reception for Dublin City Council in the late-1970s, or early-1980s.

"Go ahead, he sees you pointing the camera, take his picture, he is giving you a shot."

Mr Wilson was handling the Press for the DUP, a post he took up full-time in 1982. The incident stuck in my mind for two reasons. Sammy Wilson was pleasant and helpful to deal with and the DUP had a shade of showmanship about it which should never have been underestimated.

Mr Wilson is one of the party's greatest showmen - his conference speeches contain a lot of toe-curling jokes designed to appeal to the party old- timers. He also has an easy charm - if there was a prize for chatting up women on the canvass he would get it - and most people can get on with him.

But could he be party leader? When you mention the possibility, you get comments like: "He's more the clown prince, a bit of a wild card". He has made ill-judged remarks about gays ("poofs" and "perverts") and Catholics ("taigs don't pay rates").

He has described Irish as "a leprechaun language" and lambasted the GAA as "the sporting wing of the IRA".

After that, there is a steady realisation that these quotes are quite old. "Taigs don't pay rates" is the most recent one, from January 2000.

Besides that, Mr Wilson ticks a lot of boxes. He was born in 1953, the son of Sandy Wilson, a Bangor-based Elim Pentecostalist minister. He was a Belfast city councillor at the age of 18, full-time in the party's Press office at 19 and Lord Mayor of Belfast when he was 33.

The DUP was a smaller party in those days - he was Lord Mayor from 1986-87, so this is the profile of someone who was spotted early and moved forward through the ranks.

He was known for years as "Red Sammy" for his Left-wing views on the economy and international politics.

He was associated with Peter Robinson, the current DUP leader, since joining the party, but there is now a hint of rivalry.

He gave Peter Robinson the message that he should abandon support for the Maze peace and reconciliation centre. That precipitated a crisis in relations with Sinn Fein, which no longer trusted Mr Robinson, because he had publicly defended the building a few days earlier.

Mr Wilson also has a more colourful side to him. Everyone remembers the holiday pictures of him and a former girlfriend running through a field in France with very little on during a motorbiking holiday in France in 1996.

He is also a keen gardener, a climate-change sceptic and has an interest in wildlife. His degree is in economics - no disadvantage these days - and he is a former teacher.

Nigel Dodds, the DUP deputy leader, is also being mentioned as a possible future leader. After the next Westminster election next May, neither MP can sit in the Assembly under new double-jobbing rules.

This means that, if the DUP retains the post of First Minister, it will have to be an MLA and Arlene Foster is still favourite.

The DUP has deplored Sinn Fein for splitting the posts of deputy First Minister (Martin McGuinness) and party leader (Gerry Adams), so that Mr McGuinness has to consult Mr Adams before making decisions.

However, they see the advantages and seem likely to follow suit if Stormont survives to the next term.

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