Testing times for Peter Robinson as Ian Paisley Jr waits in wings
Published 27/01/2014 | 08:30
The televised tirade of the Paisleys has served to remind everyone that unionist leaders have been at loggerheads for half-a-century with no end in sight.
The overwhelming reaction in the past week among the unionist rank and file is one of regret and embarrassment that once again puts their woes on public display.
They have been reminded that Ian Paisley mustered the man and woman in the street in the 1960s and so drove the big-house and business brigade from power. The downside is that many middle-class, grammar school and university-educated unionists are left disenchanted to this day and have cut themselves adrift from political life.
Unionist politics remains influenced more by how the flag-wavers think and act rather than by what the intellectual and commercial heart of Northern Ireland is saying.
The Paisley interviews remind us also of the difference between the former First Minister and the present incumbent. Like him or loathe him, Paisley was a leader, whereas Peter Robinson is a political manager.
Paisley could run backwards, as he did for much of his career, or then fast-forwards, as happened when he eventually shocked the world by sharing power with Sinn Fein.
Robinson runs neither forwards nor backwards, but constantly on the spot. He annoys and frustrates his political opponents, because, unlike Paisley, he seldom goes out on a limb.
Everything is weighed up ultra-carefully. The First Minister's office in the past six years has become a cautious balancing act – one day a visionary speech on Northern Ireland's future prospects, the next looking over a shoulder at the flags protesters.
Unlike Paisley, Peter Robinson is no chuckler with Martin McGuinness. At best, the two men appear to have only a tenuous relationship. At worst, Robinson's six years as First Minister are not memorable for other than two reasons – the tragedy which befell his personal life and the loss of his Westminster seat, both of which the Paisleys focused upon in their interviews.
Paisley always needed an adviser-cum-manager to keep him in check. Peter Robinson played that role, but so, too, did others, most notably Desmond Boal, the first chairman of the Democratic Unionists and one of the most brilliant barristers and biting orators of his day.
While I was interviewing Boal at his home at St John's Point outside Ardglass shortly after the imposition of direct rule in 1972, his phone rang. It was Paisley, calling for advice from Westminster as to whether he should walk out of that evening's debate in protest. Boal advised him to do nothing of the kind.
For all his firebrand bluster, Paisley listened and obeyed his mentor, as he must have done with Peter Robinson on many occasions.
Notably, Eileen Paisley related how even the relationship with Boal foundered on the rocks of power-sharing, recalling how he came to her door and bluntly told her he wanted nothing more to do with her husband.
The question remains as to why the Paisleys put their boot into Peter Robinson, especially when it is now evident that the unionist community is more saddened than stirred by their revelations.
At the heart of the Paisleys's ire appears to be the belief that their son, Ian Jr, was sidelined unjustifiably at Stormont. As one might expect of a father and mother of their offspring, neither Ian Paisley nor his wife are much pleased.
The family's succession planning does not seem to have worked out to date. Yes, Ian Jr has more than filled his father's shoes as Westminster MP for North Antrim. No, he is not regarded currently as a runner for the leadership stakes in the Democratic Unionist Party, or the post of First Minister of Northern Ireland.
As for the Rev Kyle Paisley, the other son, he, too, might have expected to follow in his father's footsteps in the Free Presbyterian Church.
The outspoken views of Ian and Eileen Paisley have cast attention on their sons' future prospects. As mentor, aide de camp and his father's closest confidant, Ian Paisley Jr will have his own version of events, which it seems we are unlikely to hear as he gets on with his business at Westminster.
However, he is now one of the most strident voices in the DUP and in electoral terms one of its most secure and successful MPs. As one Ian Paisley bows out and looks back in anger, the question facing Peter Robinson and those who might aspire to his job as leader of the DUP and First Minister is whether a younger Ian Paisley is now waiting in the wings.