Monday, 10 March 2008

Paisley and the DUP youth

The BBC’s Politics Show from Northern Ireland yesterday focussed on last week’s inescapable story, Ian Paisley stepping down from the leadership of his party and his role as First Minister. Although in many respects I am heartily sick of these retrospectives (which is ominous for the actual occasion of his retirement and indeed eventually his death) the programme was interesting enough to merit a mention.

Particularly so the interview with young members of the DUP from QUB. What was striking about these young people was their apparent inability to explain with reference to actual political beliefs why they had joined the party. Certainly Ian Paisley was barely mentioned which was the angle the show was pursuing, but there was a much more profound philosophical vacuum at work.

Putting aside the taught mantras of “working for the unionist people / community” (in itself a telling choice of words to inculcate) and “delivering for unionism”, we were left with a version of political party as family or club which the members chose seeking the greatest sense of belonging. Although it is commendable that the DUP is making young members feel valued, I suspect that these particular representantives' decisions to join were more likely extensions of felt community affiliations than the culminations of considered and thoughtful political processes.

The author Glenn Patterson and the playwright Gary Mitchell then discussed Paisley’s career and the impact of his downfall from different ends of the unionist spectrum. Mitchell’s comments betrayed atavistic fear from a community that sees itself as rudderless and to some extent has lost a leader. Patterson was quick to contend that Paisley was far from unambiguously a representative of the loyalist working class. The social component of the DUP’s policy has dwindled to non-existence from the party’s foundation.

The tendency of Paisley to set himself up as the antithesis of “big house unionism”, epitomised in the 1960 and 1970s by Terrence O’Neill and Chichester Clark, was simply a tactical ploy. The DUP were just as inclined to divert the attentions of working class loyalists away from social concerns toward the atavistic politics of sectarianism as was ever the case with the more cynical attempts of the UUP to undermine the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the 1950s.

Patterson provided a more prescient analysis of the 10 months of devolved government which has followed last May. He was dismissive of the notion that work had actually been achieved and described the type of glad-handing between Paisley and McGuinness which has so rankled with many people, as ‘Hello politics’. Devolved government had already operated here and Paisley opposed it tooth and nail. Patterson’s predictions for the year ahead were gloomy.

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