Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Paisley's retirement should not usher in one party unionism

I have no wish to linger unduly on the subject of Ian Paisley’s announcement that he will retire in May but I must raise a few points in passing. Firstly the announcement was not as the media would lead you to believe “a shock”. The actuality that Paisley would step down in May was widely anticipated even if the timing of the statement was not. Secondly, as Reg Empey pointed out on Good Morning Ulster today, the DUP leader is being ousted from his position, rather than stepping down gracefully. This is an important distinction and one that should not be lost in the rush to analyse Paisley’s legacy.

Additionally it must be pointed out that Paisley’s influence on unionism and on Northern Ireland was almost entirely pernicious. The fact that he belatedly decided to embrace power-sharing should not be allowed to obscure this. Paisley destroyed successive unionist leaders who attempted to introduce power-sharing and indeed those who attempted to make any accommodation which would enable nationalists to feel more included in the Northern Irish state. He contributed nothing toward the process of achieving peace, but then performed an astonishing about face in order to acquire power. Northern Ireland does not owe anything to Paisley and in particular unionism does not owe anything to a figure who only divided weakened and undermined it at every turn.

Whilst nationalists who attempt to lay the blame for the Troubles solely at Paisley’s door are clearly not being either honest or accurate, undoubtedly he inflamed the situation and played a significant contributing role in creating a place where violence flourished. Seamus Mallon quoted Malvern Street murderer Hugh Arnold McClean on Radio Ulster this morning "I am sorry I ever heard of that man Paisley or decided to follow him". Mallon correctly identified Paisley’s primary driver as a lust for power. And it is that lust for power which makes him an irredeemable figure. Not only was Paisley’s influence poisonous, but his venom ultimately proved not to be principled poison. He was prepared to simply jettison all his supposed beliefs when presented with the opportunity to assume power.

I cannot in all conscience wish Ian Paisley an enjoyable retirement. I hope he is plagued by guilt and regret for the course he chose to follow and the damage which his selfishness left in his wake. I hope this loathsome man does not choose to meddle in politics from the sidelines and that his retirement is a quiet and private one.

Inevitably when Reg Empey was interviewed this morning the spectre of a united unionist party raised its ugly head again. Henry McDonald yesterday examined the travails of the Paisley dynasty on the Guardian’s politics blog and in so doing also raised an issue which has remained dormant on this site for a number of months. I was heartened by Sir Reg’s answer. He maintained that a united unionist party would exacerbate the sectarian headcount aspect of Northern Irish politics. Unionism must remain reflective of the wide spectrum of opinion it represents and not present itself simply as an ethno-religious group.


O'Neill said...

I hope he is plagued by guilt and regret for the course he chose to follow and the damage which his selfishness left in his wake.

He doesn't strike me as the kind of person who's kept awake at night by a troubled conscience, but who knows, maybe this ousting and blow to his ego will make him reflect a bit more about his career and life.

Re one party-unionism...remove Paisley, you still have an ultra-conservative party, content to concentrate and consolidate solely on the Ulster Prod vote. It's not my kind of Unionism and if by some chance this philosophy becomes the main force behind a "United" Unionism, then it wouldn't be getting my support at the ballot box.


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