The unthinkable looms in Northern Ireland: politics without Paisley

Ian Paisley, the raucous agitator who, in his old age, surprised the world by becoming Sinn Fein's genial governmental partner, has been around for so long that Northern Ireland is scarcely imaginable without him.

Yet his Democratic Unionist party has been so damaged by a recent stream of sleaze allegations that the focus in Belfast has now turned to a notion that was previously unthinkable: politics after Paisley.

With his 82nd birthday looming in April, everyone is speculating on just how long Northern Ireland's First Minister will stay in office. He is in belligerent mood – "I have a fairly hard rhinoceros skin," he growled this week – and has declared his intention to stay until 2011. Hardly surprising for a man whose outsize career has been extraordinary as much for its intensity and longevity as for its final surprise twists.

But events are moving rapidly, and few think he will still be here in a year's time.

Until recent months, Mr Paisley clearly saw himself as set for a long and comfortable innings: attaining power had taken him four decades and once in office he was clearly enjoying himself. His lifelong aversion to having anything to do with republicans seemed to melt away as power beckoned, his relationship with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness so close and so cordial that they became known as "the Chuckle Brothers".

Mr Paisley's prestige among protestants was so great that a large majority of them accepted, after the initial shock, that the time had come to share power with Sinn Fein.But that prestige has now been dented, not through his actions but those of his son, Ian Paisley Jnr, who has served both as junior minister and as his father's personal helpmate at Stormont.

Junior, as he is known, is not a popular figure, and as a steady drip of sleaze allegations emerged during the past four months, few in his party leapt to his public defence. Many in the ranks, in fact, made little attempt to disguise their pleasure at his problems, regarding his political prominence not due not to any innate ability but to the sponsorship of his powerful father.

The revelations centre on Junior's relationship with a wealthy developer in the North Antrim constituency in which the two Paisleys are based. Some stories concerned possible developments of the Giant's Causeway natural attraction, as well as the purchase of a house from the developer. Then emerged news that Junior was drawing pay not only from his Belfast ministerial job but also as a Westminster researcher for his father. Next came the revelation that the two Paisleys had been paying unusually high rent for political premises.

Although reporters have been zealously investigating Junior's affairs, they have turned up no "smoking gun" of illegality. Nonetheless, his private financial dealings have gone down badly within a party that prides itself on being straitlaced and puritanical. A loss of a recent council by-election which the DUP had expected to win served both as a wake-up call to the party and the last straw for Junior's ministerial career.

He resigned his ministry, though insisting he had done nothing wrong and asserting yesterday that "the Paisley brand" had not been damaged. But he is almost alone in that assessment.

In any case, senior party figures have, in recent months, been gently telling the First Minister that he cannot stay for ever, and should be planning an orderly succession process. Setting a departure date would be a good idea, they have gently suggested, allowing him to depart the stage with grace and dignity.

Mr Paisley has, however, declined to do so since he – and everyone else – knows that this would render him a lame-duck figure.

But he is now more of a figurehead than a dynamo in the government, leaving much of the heavy administrative lifting to Peter Robinson, the Finance minister, and other heads of department. The fact is Mr Paisley has no huge agenda to push through: for him taking power was itself the pinnacle of his achievement and ambitions. So if he leaves it will not disrupt any great plans. The expectation of most – and the hope of practically everyone supportive of the administration – is that Mr Robinson will take over.

The other serious potential contender, Nigel Dodds, shows little appetite for a contest. Mr Robinson has great experience, having been Mr Paisley's deputy for three decades, and ability.

He is also highly supportive of power-sharing, and although he is not one of nature's chucklers, he has worked well with Mr McGuinness and other republican ministers. Hopes are high that a new Robinson-McGuinness team would function well, probably making up in efficiency for anything it may lack in geniality.

Interestingly, Sinn Fein has been a model of restraint, keeping criticism of Junior to an absolute minimum and offering nothing but support to his father. Like everyone else, they are hoping for a smooth transition.

Whenever Mr Paisley goes, the family name will not disappear. His wife is in the House of Lords, Junior wants a Westminster seat and two Paisley daughters are employed at the Assembly. The question now is whether he will deploy his rhinoceros skin to tough it out, or whether he should go soon rather than wait to be pushed.

If he decides to go, May would offer a good moment, since it will bring a landmark investment conference and the first anniversary of the formation of the Paisley-Sinn Fein administration.

He will have time to ponder exactly when the era should end. He will be pondering, too, the role of his son in hastening his departure, and on the ironic biblical ring to the fact that the sins of the son are being visited on the father.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
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

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading and innovative con...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue