Analysis: Extremism and cunning help flow of power to Paisley

David McKittrick
Wednesday 09 October 2002 00:00

Casting his shadow over the present crisis in the Northern Ireland peace process is the Rev Ian Paisley who, now in his 77th year, has a real chance of achieving his lifelong ambition of overtaking the Ulster Unionists.

The Government and almost every other element in the peace process would be aghast if it happened, yet the dwindling Protestant support for the process has brought the prize within his grasp.

All those other elements want David Trimble to stay ahead of Mr Paisley but almost all of them also concede privately the latter has forged ahead through a combination of extremism and exceptional cunning. The result was all too visible in last year's election results, which put Mr Paisley's Democratic Unionists within striking distance of Mr Trimble's party.

In the general election, Mr Paisley captured some of Mr Trimble's seats, so the Westminster party score stands at UUP six, DUP five. The DUP surge was such that its candidate came within 2,000 votes of capturing Mr Trimble's own Upper Bann seat.

Last year's local council elections carried an equally ominous message for the Ulster Unionists. They had 23 per cent of vote but Mr Paisley's party were not far behind with 21 per cent.

The sense is almost universal that voters have, since those elections, continued to swing away from Mr Trimble and towards Mr Paisley, who continues to harvest votes from the mounting Protestant opposition to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Trimble has not energised the Protestant public in favour of the accord, and has watched as approval for it has ebbed away over the past four years. Mr Paisley's two lieutenants, MPs Nigel Dodds and Peter Robinson, have acted as ministers in the Stormont administration but have kept their distance from Sinn Fein by refusing to attend meetings of the executive. They will not speak to Sinn Fein representatives.

This semi-detached status, which has led to the DUP men being described as ministers in opposition, at one stage looked like being an uncomfortable stance. Trimble Unionists deride it as hypocrisy but, as the election results show, Protestant voters have given the arrangement their blessing.

The major reason for Mr Trimble's party deciding to pull its ministers out of the executive lies in the general Protestant disenchantment with the Agreement.

An important subsidiary factor, however, is that party activists believe a tougher line is needed in electoral terms. That is because most think the DUP is set to make further gains in the Assembly elections, which are scheduled for next May.

Whether those elections will take place is in doubt, partly because the Assembly will probably have been suspended by then, but also partly because increased votes for the DUP, and Sinn Fein, would be unwelcome to others involved in the peace process.

Mr Trimble is the latest in a whole series of Ulster Unionist leaders who, over the course of more than three decades, have had to operate with the baleful Paisleyite breath on their necks. The Protestant population can almost always be divided into three sections – moderates, hardliners and waverers. In the perpetual Paisley-UUP battle he has often succeeded in eventually persuading the many waverers to join him and his party in resisting any reform and modernisation.

In the process he has, in effect, claimed the scalps of several Ulster Unionist leaders who, in his language, sold Ulster down the river and opted for compromise.

Mr Paisley has undeniably won the argument within Unionism, where a majority now strongly agrees with his argument that Sinn Fein are unreconstructed terrorists who should not be in government. The fact that more and more Protestants are now saying Mr Trimble was naive at best and that Ian Paisley was right all along, suggests the tide of opinion may now continue to flow in a Paisleyite direction.

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