Paisley is shrinking and so is his support

Vote for Europe

IAN PAISLEY, the greatest vote-getter Northern Ireland has ever known, cruised through the shoppers at Lisburn market like a latter-day Old Testament patriarch, a larger-than-life figure who speaks directly to the soul of the Ulster Protestant.

The traders at the little stalls were selling Manchester United carpets, car shampoo, mint Aero eggs, cooking apples, French polish, best Manx kippers and socks featuring South Park cartoon characters. Ian Paisley, too, offered value and variety, setting out the familiar political stall so popular with unionist voters. His winning formula is to put the fear of God into them, demand they do their tribal duty, and then to give them a laugh.

Thus the tape on his car loudspeaker told them they were the victims of "betrayal and treachery" and declared he was the only unionist who could top the poll. While those messages were being broadcast over and over, he was in the midst of the shoppers, making them chuckle and flirting with the older women.

"Don't forget me love, don't forget me on the 10th," he told one old dear. "I will not indeed," she replied. Another told him: "You're the only one that does anything for us." And he repeated his old formulation which often gets him a laugh: "Remember my wife's husband when you vote."

The old magic is still there but the Big Man, as he is known, is 73 and not quite as big as he was. He was in hospital recently and has lost weight: the huge frame has shrunk somewhat, and he is not as burly as before. The question to be answered on 10 June is whether his share of the vote will shrink too.

In every European election for two decades he has topped the poll which elects Northern Ireland's three Strasbourg representatives. SDLP leader, John Hume, has always come second, with the third seat invariably going to David Trimble's Ulster Unionist party.

But the sectarian demography of the numbers game in Northern Ireland is changing dramatically, and there is an expectation that the old mould is about to be broken. There are now a lot more Catholics and nationalists than there used to be, and they tend to be keen voters. There are fewer Protestants around, and many of them tend not to vote.

There is thus a possibility that John Hume will overtake Ian Paisley to finish first; there is also an outside chance that Sinn Fein could overtake the Ulster Unionists and snatch the third seat. The first possibility would be confirmation of a sea-change in the fundamental political arithmetic; the second would be a real jolt to the system. There are many variables in all this. Unionism is once more fragmented, with four candidates in the field. What is worse, from David Trimble's point of view, is that his own party is deeply and publicly divided.

His candidate, Jim Nicholson, has been in politics for many years and was always regarded as being a solid if unexciting personality: one observer unkindly called him a well-known nonentity. Recently, however, he suddenly became far too exciting for his party's liking when he admitting having a four-year affair with a married woman.

He has been retained as the candidate but, bizarrely, party deputy leader, John Taylor, has publicly called on him to step down and refused to say whether he will be voting for him. The party is deeply worried that its traditional supporters, many of whom are conservative and religious people, will switch their vote or simply stay home on polling day.

Until a few days ago, it seemed that unionism's difficulty was to be republicanism's opportunity, with Sinn Fein successfully hammering home the theme that unionist disarray meant its candidate, Mitchel McLaughlin, had become eminently electable.

But that was before the saga of the disappeared moved to centre-stage, showing up the republican movement in the worst possible light. The anguish of the families during the protracted search operations for IRA victims of the Seventies has been a public relations nightmare for the IRA and Sinn Fein.

The fact that the digging will probably be going on right up until polling day and beyond provides an appalling vista for Sinn Fein. It had hoped for a significant increase in its vote, but the pathetic spectacle of the waiting families makes this less likely. Thus all the major players, apart from John Hume, have something to fear from this contest.

Ian Paisley could be toppled from the top of the poll; David Trimble's leadership would be undermined by the loss of its traditional European seat; and Sinn Fein could be punished by the voters sickened by the sight of the results of the IRA's handiwork.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all