DUP dissenters can afford to wait a year or so

By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)

The DUP is a victim of its own success.

For most of its existence since Paisley founded it in 1971, the party was Paisley, then two or three other elected representatives, usually Peter Robinson and Willie McCrea.

True, there were numbers of councillors but none of them had two neurons to rub together. The party was always only second fiddle to the Ulster Unionist Party which had the bulk of MPs.

Paisley’s clique performed the role of a ginger group striving to keep the UUP blindly marching along the unionist cul de sac.

In the last decade all that changed, slowly at first but since 2001 with startling rapidity.

It’s not just the fact that Paisley’s party overtook the UUP and then demolished Trimble’s party, literally causing a revolution in unionism. Within the DUP the biggest change has been the influx of newly-elected MPs and assembly members.

That might seem to be an unalloyed triumph. In fact the influx has created a problem for Paisley and it’s this - the DUP is no longer Paisley’s party, a unionist splinter which could be dismissed with the collective title ‘Paisleyites’.

Not now. Many of the new people - and some not so new - do not depend on Paisley for their political existence.

Jim Allister, who has been around DUP politics for a generation, has always been his own man in the party, disappearing from public view 20 years ago when he was prevented from contesting a Westminster seat. Newly elected to the European parliament, he’s going to be around for years ahead.

MPs like Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson hold impregnable Westminster seats. David Simpson in Upper Bann, a successful businessman, does not depend on politics to keep the wolf from the door. Lord Morrow is a life peer. There’s nothing Paisley can do about him even if he wanted to. Likewise the blow-ins from the UUP do not owe their success to Paisley.

In other words the old faction that Paisley created no longer exists. To add to Paisley’s difficulties, what we have witnessed in the last couple of months since Blair and Ahern’s St Andrews Agreement is the start of a leadership contest in the DUP.

Paisley will be 81 next April. Until he retires he will be sole proprietor of the party he founded but it’s obvious he won’t be around for much longer as party leader.

Who will succeed?

Was it his dismal performance in a poll to assess potential successors that stung Nigel Dodds into adopting a tough line on Sinn Féin in an executive and that incited him to join the Dirty Dozen who signed the declaration rejecting any suggestion Paisley had signalled he would be First Minister?

He got 11 per cent in the poll. It would be interesting to see what his figure would be now.

Sad, isn’t it, that any unionist who wants a bit of publicity believes the easiest way to gain it is to take a more reactionary line than any other unionist? To promise to lead the troops back into the cul de sac?

Ten days ago Dodds told the BBC that the DUP was not like the UUP because Trimble “presented his party with a fait accompli and rammed it through, whatever the dissent”.

Isn’t that exactly what Paisley tried to do on November 24 and what Dodds and his fellow dissenters prevented?

It’s perfectly clear that Paisley intended to present his party with a fait accompli that morning but the Dirty Dozen stopped him. Wasn’t that the first occasion Paisley didn’t get his way in his own party? Changed times indeed.

It’s also perfectly clear that the dissenters have been making the running ever since, laying down conditions for Sinn Féin to enter an executive just as David Trimble did.

Will the dissenters succeed in preventing an election next March, as they are looking increasingly likely to do, by making impossible demands of Sinn Féin?

Will they succeed in spancelling Paisley, irony or ironies, just as he’s contemplating the first constructive move in his long destructive life?

The dissenters can certainly afford to do so. They won’t lose a vote.

They can afford to wait a year or two. Paisley can’t.

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