DUBLIN — Now almost 82, the long-time Ulster Protestant firebrand frontman Ian Paisley looks set to depart his formerly strife-torn region’s political scene.
His son, Ian Paisley Jr, formally resigned his Belfast ministerial post late last week, after a drip-fed series of revelations showed the younger Paisley as too close to a property developer for the liking of rival politicians.
With his father at his side, Paisley Jr said he was proud to have served in the power-sharing executive. “I leave with high hopes, good spirit, deep humility and with gratefulness in my heart,” he said.
Ian Paisley paid tribute to his son’s contribution to government. “I would just like to say, as the first minister, a word of thanks […] to my son Ian for the hard work he did while he was in office.”
Young Paisley has not been cited for any illegality, nor has there been anything more than an implication that something inappropriate was afoot. But it was enough to force his hand.
After a rough few weeks, the still-sprightly leader of Northern Ireland’s biggest pro-UK political group – the Democratic Unionist Party – looks set to be shoved aside by impatient younger colleagues eager to move out from under the shadow of the often-controversial leader.
The son’s departure robs the father of a trusted aide, and is seen by party insiders as removing one crucial obstacle to deposing Paisley Sr.
For almost a half-century, the Billy Graham-esque, fire-and-brimstone founder of the Free Presbyterian Church typified Northern Irish unionism’s nay-saying to any rapprochement with the Irish Republic, which broke from British rule in 1921 and until 1998 retained a territorial claim over the northeastern region, which is still part of the UK.
That defiance became more intransigent from the late 1960s, as a Catholic, Irish-nationalist civil rights movement sought to level the pro-Unionist political playing field in Northern Ireland.
When these reform efforts fell on the rock of Protestant Unionist refusal, escalating tensions led to British military intervention, and then the birth of the Provisional IRA, the leftist, Catholic-based resistance group, which soon become infamous for terrorist atrocities. Paisley had no documented link to Protestant terror groups, but his inflammatory rhetoric stoked the already volatile-region.
Throughout this time, Paisley become renowned as the thunder-voiced orator of hardline unionism, even refusing to sign the 1998 peace deal that ended the long war of attrition in the region, and castigating other unionist parties that held talks with Dublin or with the IRA-linked Sinn Féin.
His political convictions were buttressed by an atavistic theological aversion to Ireland’s majority Catholicism. In 1988, he was famously ejected from Strasbourg’s European Parliament, heckling Pope John Paul II as “The Anti-Christ” as the pontiff addressed the assembly.
The 1998 peace deal was cemented by a working alliance between the “moderate” parties on either side of the communal divide – the Ulster Unionist Party and the Catholic-based Social Democratic and Labour Party, led by that years’ Nobel peace laureates David Trimble and John Hume, respectively. But the IRA refused to disarm until 2005, giving Paisley the ammo he needed to fire accusations that Trimble was too soft, set to sell Ulster out to Dublin at the point of a gun.
Thus the moderate parties declined, leaving the apparently polar-opposite DUP and Sinn Féin as the tribal leaders on each side.
Almost one year ago, the world was treated to the jarring sight of Paisley sitting, smiling affably, with his erstwhile enemies. But the political reconciliation was working, and the regional government promised to Belfast in 1998 was restored, with Paisley as first minister, deputised by none other than Martin McGuinness, often alleged to have been a senior IRA commander during the conflict.
Such was the public camaraderie between the two men, they soon became known as “the chuckle brothers,” all backslapping and beaming guffaws. Traditionalists in both parties deplored what they saw as cringe-worthy mutual affection between the two tough guys, though the sight of McGuinness aiding the elderly Paisley down the steps in front of Stormont, seat of Belfast’s government, had the look of a genuine concern, almost a middle-aged nephew helping an aging uncle no longer so sure on his feet.
DUP concerns about the IRA love-in amplified recently when a new party called Traditional Unionist Voice emerged, running the DUP close in a by-election, and raising fears within the party that the DUP stood to shed its traditional rightist base.
Now the sins of the son may now be visited upon the father, with the Bible-quoting shepherd set to be ditched by a flock chary of losing its recently acquired power. A scheduled May investment conference – when contacts made by Paisley Sr. and McGuinness during their US trips visit Northern Ireland to discuss business opportunities – could be the old man’s political swan-song.
But he has been around for a long time, and at a press conference given in Scotland a week ago, Paisley sharply dismissed any notion that he would step down before his five-year term as first minister is up in 2011.
Jeffrey Donaldson will replace Ian Paisley Jr as minister, and speaking on Friday last, he said of the elder Paisley’s future: “He is the first minister and party leader and in terms of any future change in either of those positions that’s a matter for the party, not a matter for me as an individual.”
Back in 1985, after UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher inked a limited Northern Ireland cooperation deal with her Dublin counterpart, Paisley led hundreds of thousands of Ulster Protestants onto the streets, scenting a potential sell-out by London.
“Never, never, never!,” he thundered to the entranced crowds.
So is Paisley now a political goner? Never say never.Show