Threats to DUP leadership coming from fringes

By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)

I strongly suspect that there is hardly a person, nationalist or unionist, who believes the DUP’s leadership’s protestations about the existence of the IRA’s Army Council as the reason why it is opposing the transfer of policing and justice powers to the north’s executive.

I strongly suspect that there are few in the leadership of the DUP, including its leader and first minister Peter Robinson, who believe the existence of the IRA’s Army Council is a genuine obstacle to the establishment of a police and justice ministry.

The reality is the leadership of the DUP is being spooked not by republicans but by the by-election result in Dromore, Co Down, when Jim Allister attracted an uncomfortable number of former DUP voters and used these votes, as second preferences, to elect a UUP candidate and defeat the DUP’s candidate.

When Peter Robinson looks in the mirror in the morning before his ministerial car arrives at his door to pick him up it is not Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister, he sees over his shoulder, it is Jim Allister.

Allister is challenging the leadership of the DUP not from a solid, assured position but from the sidelines, from the fringes of unionism and he is causing them to lose their nerve.

What other explanation can be offered up for the impasse which currently exists where the executive has not met over the last few months because the DUP are not prepared to seriously address issues like policing, educational reform, rural planning and the location of the proposed new stadium.

What other explanation can be offered up for the DUP standing the high-profile minister Arlene Foster in this week’s by-election in Fermanagh -an election campaign in which Jim Allister has no candidate but which is still haunted by his spectre.

But Allister is not the only factor at work inside the leadership of the DUP -- there is the Paisley factor, that is, the absence of Ian Paisley senior.

The internal ramifications of his departure as leader and the manner in which he was deposed continue to play out inside the DUP.

There is no obvious threat to Peter Robinson as leader but those in the DUP opposed to power sharing, to partnership government with Sinn Féin, are flexing their muscles and trying to limit or slow down the process of change which would arise from, for example, the transfer of police and justice powers.

The self-styled ‘twelve apostles’ who flirted with the idea of blocking Paisley senior’s decision to enter government with Sinn Féin, until he firmly showed them the door, remain a negative force inside the DUP.

They are the Allister wing inside the DUP and it is to them and that section of recalcitrant unionism that Allister speaks and pitches his ‘not an inch’ brand of unionism.

Peter Robinson is clearly finding it difficult to manage these various tensions in his party and inside the unionist community.

When he was deputy leader he was instrumental in moving the DUP into government with Sinn Féin and to accepting the all-Ireland institutions.

He adroitly used Paisley senior’s persona and the power which accompanied it to help create the new, remarkable and popular dispensation that we have today.

In doing so many inside the DUP were forced into a position they resented: accepting equality with nationalists as the basis for the new society which is slowly taking shape across this island.

The leadership that Peter Robinson displayed in convincing Paisley senior to enter government with Sinn Féin; his succession as DUP leader; his welcoming Taoiseach Brian Cowen to his east Belfast constituency, all reflect a man who has the required qualities to lead unionists into a new future.

He should revisit David Trimble’s tenure when leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and learn the lessons from that period.

Jeffrey Donaldson was to Trimble what Jim Allister could become to Robinson; Trimble made the mistake of pandering to Donaldson and ended up paralysed.

Allister will wither on the vine of political progress, just as Bob McCartney did, or he will prosper on the politics of hesitancy and uncertainty.

Allister’s demise is in Robinson’s hands. His choice is obvious: partnership with Sinn Féin.

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© 2008 Irish Republican News