Paisley's party has little to laugh about
The slump in support for the Democratic Unionist Party began the day Ian Paisley joined Sinn Fein in government, says his biographer Clifford Smyth
Published 15/01/2010 | 08:00
The DUP will either get rid of Peter Robinson or the voters will get rid of the DUP." The person who made this dramatic statement was at my front door. They explained that, after hearing my comments on the Nolan Show, they felt constrained to jump into their car, drive to my home and congratulate me.
My astonishment at this statement quickened when my visitor revealed that they were members of Dr Paisley's Martyrs Memorial Church. My informant confided that they had refused to vote DUP at the last election. I was face-to-face with grassroots political opinion; this is what what core DUP support used to look like.
Throughout his charismatic political career, Dr Paisley persuaded swathes of loyalist voters that unionists could be divided among themselves and still win. This was, and remains, a delusion.
When Dr Paisley entered into a power-sharing arrangement with Sinn Fein, he achieved worldwide media acclaim and the grateful thanks of the British, Irish and American governments.
The price paid for this dramatic volte-face was costly. Ian Paisley had shattered his DUP support base, the Free Presbyterian Church was plunged into disarray and he had but little time to enjoy the pinnacle of power before he was cast down.
Peter Robinson, who has long been favoured by the British state, became First Minister at a critical juncture in the history of the DUP.
The party had been holed below the water-line and was leaking support. Observers encountering Jim Allister's TUV supporters were struck by the numbers of former DUP party workers and activists who had jumped ship. Recent electoral results amplify the same message: the DUP are in trouble with their voter base.
The new captain determined that the only way to stabilize the situation was to hang tough with Sinn Fein over the crunch anti-union issue of policing and justice.
Policing and justice detaches Northern Ireland further from the United Kingdom and is a key element in Sinn Fein's long-term strategy for Irish unification.
Peter Robinson was helped by the failure of the Ulster Unionist Party - still traumatised by the body-blows delivered to the UUP during its bare-knuckle contest with Ian Paisley.
Robinson could also count on the fact that many ordinary unionists do not understand the significance of the policing and justice controversy.
Robinson played for time on the issue in the hope of repairing the damage. Suddenly, as if striking a submerged reef, the DUP has now been holed a second time; and the captain has had to abandon the bridge.
At this moment in a developing crisis the electorate can assume nothing. Peter Robinson can only take up his post again if the media feeding-frenzy concentrates on Iris Robinson's conduct.
But if the emphasis should shift, there could be an entirely new situation. The British Government was relying on the DUP leader to deliver. But can he?
The DUP is now in the surreal situation of having had its two leading political figures secure the position of First Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, only for both Paisley and Robinson to stumble and fall. Protestants look askance at superstition, they tend not to approve of reading tea leaves or worry about black cats crossing their path. Many, though, must now wonder whether there isn't an albatross hanging around the neck of the DUP.
Ian Paisley's entry into a power-sharing agreement with the very party that he had assured his followers he would 'smash', prompted a significant segment of DUP voters to take flight.
A second tranche of voters will now abandon the DUP in consequence of the current revelations and the possibility of further disclosures to come.
One of the most intriguing features of Northern Ireland politics was the skill with which the DUP adapted to the political culture of 'spin'.
A party which had traded heavily on its own moral righteousness became thoroughly adept at 'sequencing', 'choreographing' and 'finessing'. The moralising DUP embraced post-modern political techniques of media control and voter manipulation with an evangelical enthusiasm.
We were treated to a classic example of the genre in an interview with the acting First Minister Arlene Foster, the lady with the six-week sell-by date.
In an interview with the BBC'S Noel Thompson, Arlene asserted that Peter Robinson enjoyed the full support of the DUP.
This was not what I knew, but happily, Noel Thompson ably rebutted the new First Minister. Thompson stated that BBC soundings over the weekend contradicted her assertion; Arlene Forster smiled wanly.
The Assembly cannot now agree policing and justice because the unionist benches at Stormont no longer reflect the political disposition of the unionist electorate.
No one imagines that, if there was an Assembly election tomorrow, the DUP would retain its position as the dominant unionist party.