Paisley's son fights claims he has sold out

David McKittrick reports on Ian Paisley Jnr's attempts to inherit his father's North Antrim constituency
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Indy Politics

All politics is local, but when your name is Ian Paisley Jnr and you're canvassing around Ballymena it simply doesn't get any more local than that. "I know your father well – how is he?" one smiling lady said. "I knew Margaret, your father's sister," said another. A third beamed: "We know your uncle very well: how is Harold?"

Broughshane, on the outskirts of Ballymena, is Paisley territory. The Rev Ian Paisley, as North Antrim MP for four full decades, has been the greatest vote-getter Northern Ireland has known. Now his son is attempting a dynastic succession by replacing him as the local MP. Since Paisley Jnr has himself been prominent locally for 14 years, he starts off with the ultimate in name, and face, recognition.

He only bothers to introduce himself a few times. With most people he simply flashes a winning smile, asks for votes, and indulges in good-natured banter. One elderly man assured him of his support saying, "I've been voting Paisley for 40 years." Another woman said: "Oh, I've been putting the X in the right spot for years."

When he asked a cheerful woman walking her dog if he could count on her vote she laughed and said, "Well, your daddy did and I don't see any reason why you shouldn't."

Paisley Jnr is working hard to perpetuate his father's legendary reputation for diligent constituency work: his local Democratic Unionist Party office, he said proudly, handled 18,000 queries in the past year. His assertion that votes come from political services was confirmed by a woman who told him: "You'll be getting my vote because my son was at the wee nursery that closed down and you got him into another one." Out in the wider political world he can – like his father – be caustic and combative. But during a two-hour canvass in Broughshane, a quietly affluent village, there were no tense or bitter exchanges on the doorsteps.

While the Paisley name still has immense political capital in Broughshane, Junior faces problems which Senior never did. There have been financial, sexual and other scandals which have touched the DUP and some of its leading members, including Paisley Jnr himself.

Then there is his problem of Paisley Snr's extraordinarily abrupt political change of heart. Following a lifetime of denunciation of republicanism and partnership, the 84-year-old patriarch went into government with Sinn Fein. Indeed he struck up such an affable relationship with the one-time IRA commander Martin McGuinness that the two became known as "the Chuckle Brothers".

None of this might matter too much in this unionist bastion were it not for his opponent: Jim Allister was once a senior DUP figure and MEP who resigned in protest from the party against the power-sharing deal and founded his own party, Traditional Unionist Voice.

Allister is adept at characterising the party's change of course as a sell-out. He rattled the DUP with a strong vote in a European election last year and is an effective TV critic of the party. According to Paisley Jnr: "His mission seems to be to destroy everything to do with Paisley."

Yesterday Allister went to court to try and prevent Paisley from distributing an election leaflet which he claimed was defamatory of him. It is an unwelcome distraction for his opponent who is having to re-brand himself to deal with Allister's challenge.

Today Paisley Jnr strikes a more soothing note. "My opponents have a grim message – that we should be depressed, that we're losing as unionists. But unionism should be confident," he insisted.

"There's a generational issue. Some people haven't got over the fact that the Troubles are over. They have to realise that the battles of tomorrow are different from those of yesterday."

Speaking of Northern Ireland's power-sharing accommodation, in which the DUP and Sinn Fein work together, he maintained: "Difficult decisions had to be taken. It's a matter now of selling that message better and telling people of the advances that have been made. The only way to get things done is working with people."

Was there a specific moment when he personally concluded that the Troubles were over? "Yes. The Rubicon was when Sinn Fein agreed to support the police. I grew up in a country where republicans took the view that it was legitimate to kill the police. As soon as republicans accepted the crown forces of the state – for me that was the telling moment."

Pointing at a skateboarding youngster negotiating a Broughshane hillock, he said: "Ten years ago, that wee lad didn't have a future. Now he's growing up in a very different Northern Ireland."

Paisley Snr is also striking a softer, gentler note. In his recent farewell speech in the Commons, he said: "Calm and peace is slowly but surely being established. We are making progress in the right direction."

Last year Paisley Jnr ran into trouble after allegations were made concerning him and a developer, Seymour Sweeney. He stepped down from a junior ministerial post in the Belfast Assembly but was later cleared of any wrongdoing. In 2007 Sinn Fein accused him of "dangerous homophobia" after he was reported to have told an Irish magazine: "I am pretty repulsed by gay and lesbianism. I think it is wrong."

But the Democratic Unionist Party has had to cope with waves of bad publicity. First the Commons expenses of its leader, Peter Robinson, and his MP wife, Iris, were of such magnitude that they attracted the nickname of Swish Family Robinson. Then the Iris affair arrived, almost sweeping Peter from office as party leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, when it emerged she had had an affair with a teenager. Her financial dealings are under police investigation.

The DUP is Northern Ireland's largest party, holding nine of the province's 18 Commons seats. Its support has steadily climbed in recent years, but what has been summarised as the "Iris virus" looked set to deliver heavy electoral punishment.

For various reasons, this election in Northern Ireland is unusually unpredictable, but the sense now is that the DUP is by no means facing meltdown. Certainly Paisley Jnr is favourite to hold North Antrim.

Paisley Jnr predicted the party would not lose seats but conceded that its vote would be down. He added: "I think we won't get as big a loss as some people are hoping for."

Does Paisley Jnr get asked about the Seymour Sweeney controversy? "More in banter," he replied. "I know Jim Allister is trying to make it a big deal – that's to disguise the fact that he doesn't have any policies or plans."

Allister has no kind words for his former party leader. "The Chuckle Brothers is the abiding legacy of Ian Paisley Snr," he declared. "Putting terrorists in government – that obviously rankles with his constituents."

What do his voters say about Paisley Snr? "You hear comments that he sold us out, he betrayed us, he brought terrorists into government." And what do Allister supporters say about Martin McGuinness? "They call him a murderer, they call him terrorist."

The irony is that the Allister rhetoric of today is uncannily similar to the Paisley rhetoric of old. The DUP has moved on but the Allister tendency remains unreconstructed.

North Antrim is thus a key battleground in which modern pragmatism is pitted against the traditional hardline – the Paisleyism of today vs the Paisleyism of yesteryear.

North Antrim: Result in 2005

DUP Ian Paisley, 25,156, 54.8 per cent

Sinn Fein Philip McGuigan, 7,191, 15.7 per cent

UUP Rodney McCune, 6,637, 14.5 per cent

SDLP Sean Farren, 5,585, 12.2 per cent

Alliance Jayne Dunlop, 1,357, 3.0 per cent

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