Crossing the Rubicon

Ian Paisley faces a delicate political balancing act if devolved government is to be restored in the North, without isolating fundamentalist DUP voters. By Alan Murray 

It has traditionally been the view that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has been composed of two primary factions: those who regard Ian Paisley as their route to political and spiritual salvation, and those who merely acknowledge him as the most powerful  vote-getter on this island.

Of late, those who sought political and spiritual salvation through Paisley's leadership to have begun to have doubts.

It's not difficult to see why.  

For the best part of 40 years Ian Paisley has thundered abuse at those who would dare court Ulster's enemies. David Trimble was the last Unionist leader to survive the assaults and insults from Paisley, only to be humbled and toppled by the IRA's inability to adjust to the democratic requirements of the new “exclusively peaceful and democratic” arrangement.

Now Gerry Adams is attempting to snuggle up to Ian Paisley. While Trimble-the-academic displayed that distinctly pleasant but distant manner, ultimately, unlike the Doc, he harboured no fundamental ideological hang-up about shaking hands with Adams or Martin McGuinness.

For Ian Paisley, that handshake, as he has oft mused, is the equivalent of shaking hands “with the devil” and it is on that language and imagery that his supporters in the DUP and the Free Presbyterian church have been nurtured.

Now Paisley is herding them along the equivalent of the biblical Road to Damascus and the portents of that journey conjure up horrendous images for the fundamentalist hat-wearing Sabbath worshippers who populate the pews at Martyrs Memorial Church.

Even for churchgoing Protestants there is a distinct divide between those in fundamentalist mode and the ordinary Christian God-fearing Protestants who attend Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, Baptist and Methodist services on a Sunday.

Those like the Free Presbyterians, Brethren, and the various other tiny little Protestant sects are entities separated, by their choice, within the general Protestant community and neither imbibe alcohol nor attend commonplace social functions.

It is this section of the DUP support that now is scrutinising with great concern Ian Paisley's actions and intentions.

His party chairman, Maurice Morrow, is a deeply religious figure and one of those who signed the brief statement last Friday clarifying that Paisley had not lent his name to powersharing with the Sinn Féin enemy just yet.

Nigel Dodds' name, too, was on that list along with William McCrea and the Mid-Ulster MP David Simpson. All are religious/ Christian in their outlook and each in their own way has indicated through statements in previous weeks their antipathy towards the concept of sharing political power with Sinn Féin.

Nigel Dodds may have done the most telling damage to Gerry Adams' prospects of persuading a reluctant support to embrace the new policing concepts when he suggested the transfer of policing powers to Stormont was unlikely to happen in his “political lifetime”.

Friday's ‘12 Apostles', as they have been dubbed, did not include arch serial critic of Sinn Féin Sammy Wilson or his close political ally, East Belfast MP Peter Robinson, an inseparable Paisley aide at rallies and marches over the last three decades.

Robinson, the pragmatic deputy leader of the party, is as acutely aware as any other senior strategist within the DUP of the delicate political balancing act that now has to be performed if devolved government involving Sinn Féin is to be restored to the North.

Anxious to resume ministerial responsibilities, Robinson nevertheless knows that, unlike the Unionist Party, the DUP will get but one go at getting it right before its electoral support might begin to gently ebb away.

The party's deputy leader will have calculated precisely what is required from Sinn Féin to allow the DUP to enter into a powersharing accord with them and the probable cost in the loss of support among the core of the bible-reading grassroots.

It was noticeable that when Robinson returned from his summer holiday, the fractious wrangling between the DUP and Sinn Féin at the sessions of the Preparation for Government Committee meetings abated noticeably.

But Robinson knows moving forward arm-in-arm with Sinn Féin is both dangerous for the DUP and certainly an irrevocable step. He knows that some who drifted from the Unionist Party to the DUP during the Trimble years could drift back to their natural political habitat, or worse, that a splinter group from the fundamentalist wing of the DUP could construct a rump that would be the bane of his political life when he might succeed Paisley.

Robinson's succession as party leader is no longer the clear-cut certainty it might have been two years ago or over a year ago. When the Free Presbyterian moderator was, to use his own words, approaching the biblical “valley of the shadow of death” last July, it was to Robinson that most within the DUP looked for guidance and steadiness.

In the summer of 2005 it looked bleak for the 80-year-old political and evangelical bruiser until an astute change in his medication by doctors reversed a terminal decline and restored his health to the suprising level he now enjoys. He no longer drifts off to sleep at tedious meetings or loses the thread of his argument and indeed appears willing to afford Gerry Adams a distant embrace in government when the time is right.

But like Adams the octogenarian faces serious misgivings within his party about ultimately accepting Sinn Féin at face value.  Paisley lambasted David Trimble for his “naïvety” in being serially deceived by “Sinn Féin/IRA” and he will be demanding absolute assurances from Adams before crossing the Rubicon.

Many in moderate Unionism say Adams is deserving of his current problems because of the Republican movement's constant undermining of Trimble and the first Executive.

Sinn Féin is currently reeling from the gross miscalculation of the policing issue and the failure to perceive the import of the clever British move to place MI5 in the strategic intelligence-gathering position in the North. Always happy to mount an attack when it perceives an opponent to be in difficulty, the DUP is currently happy to exploit Sinn Féin's vulnerability on the policing issue, not least because it, too, is greatly vulnerable on the same matter.

Jim Allister, who succeeded Ian Paisley as the DUP's European MP,  has, in his quiet, carefully delivered tones, tellingly underlined the thresholds Sinn Féin must cross on policing and “criminality” and has been keen to rehearse his views at any afforded opportunity. Relations between Allister and the party's hierarchy have been distinctly frosty since the autumn when he publicly outlined his reservations about joining a government at Stormont that would see the DUP engage with Sinn Féin. He remains welded to the view that until a period of time has elapsed that would confirm the dismantling of the IRA's Army Council structure and the termination of the organisation's criminal operations and financial manipulations then such a union at Stormont is unsupportable.

Allister and the 12 DUP Apostles, together with that section of the DUP base which cherishes a fundamentalist Protestant gospel-based outlook to living, are a formidable entity that Ian Paisley cannot abandon without electoral cost. He could be persuaded to adopt a strategy of limited expansionism at the 7 March poll by venturing to appeal to more ‘pro-powersharing minded' unionists to propel him to that handshake with Adams – but his son Ian jnr, who is also his potential successor as leader of the DUP, would lobby fiercely against that strategy.

For so long the disrupter and the sower of seeds of political doubt, Ian Paisley now encounters doubting Thomases within a political and religious movement that has hung on his “ever truthful” word for four decades.