By Fionnuala O Connor (for the Irish Times)
For half a century, the unionist community has destroyed its own leaders. Or rather Ian Paisley and the DUP destroyed them: O’Neill, Chichester-Clark, Faulkner and Trimble.
Paisley himself fell victim when he joined Sinn Féin in government and was seen to like smiling beside Martin McGuinness. Paisley in his turn was pushed out by the party he created.
The saga is Northern lore, imprinted on every political brain. You might suppose that nobody would know every syllable better than Paisley’s heir. Yet Peter Robinson must have felt that with no one left to outflank him on the loyalist end of the spectrum he and his colleagues could with impunity simultaneously share power with Sinn Féin, while continuing to abuse them. And in the process, that they could feast - with some of their families - on jobs and associated expenses. After all, the last challenging anti-agreement voice had been seen off, in the 2007 Assembly election performances of Robert McCartney and company.
The First Minister’s pre-election anxieties about the expenses fallout, manifested as characteristic waspishness towards questioners, seem to have come too late to allow him a clear head. It was puzzling to hear a man who always prided himself on election tactics break basic rules of the game, calling a week before the polls for a big unionist turnout to stop “the real prospect” that republicans could claim they were the leading voice of Northern Ireland.
Doesn’t the handbook say never talk up the opponent? But the Diane Dodds campaign did that from the outset, by picturing the nightmare should unionism be pushed out of the top seat. It could not be permitted. Northern Ireland must have a unionist champion in Europe to stop Sinn Féin gloating, and the top MEP must have a Northern accent - the last a swipe at Bairbre de Brun’s Southern vowels. The DUP’s campaign and the dud Dodds soundbites duly made de Brun the voice of Ulster.
No amount of entrail-examination will be able to prove it. There remain suspicions that Dodds not only alienated DUP voters, already galled by tales of Westminster expenses, by feeding a crude mixed message, but that she also brought de Brun votes beyond the reach of Sinn Féin itself - far from confident about the result as they were. A fair sprinkling of last-minute nationalists may have been irked out to vote, by the suggestion that it is unionism’s right to come top of the poll.
The end result for the Robinson leadership is humiliation by Jim Allister, who has just turned his Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) into a pressure group of real menace.
DUP figures looked stunned at the King’s Hall count last Monday to be jeered and heckled by a Union Jack-waving crowd. That used to be their role. Allister’s barn-storming vow to take the fight to Westminster and Stormont needed only his later promise to contest the Paisley barony of North Antrim to leave DUP nerves in shreds. Threats by instalment for maximum unease? Allister could cause real problems in North Antrim whenever the next general election arrives, and more widely in the Assembly election scheduled for 2011. On past figures, TUV would only need to pinch a handful of seats to make Sinn Féin the leading party: arise First Minister McGuinness. And then the cat would be among the unionist pigeons, and devolution in real doubt.
Allister cannot hope to rise to power or compel parties and the governments to go back to basics. He can do real damage well short of that. He would presumably see restored direct rule as a good result: the unionist fallback position faced with assertive nationalism. Sour grapes as policy. We don’t get our Stormont parliament back, English ministers keep arriving to patronise us, but that’s okay because you don’t get to walk your Irish nationalism into a Northern Assembly on equal terms.
The DUP (and Sinn Féin) cannot stand still and cannot go back. The DUP will win back no votes by saying “this is terrible but it’s the best we can do”, as Robinson said this week. They need to tell their people the truth - that in a deeply divided society it is desirable and necessary for the common good to share power and responsibility. The current position where they work with Sinn Féin, or profess to work alongside them, while saying they are smashing them, simply invites ridicule. It also treats their supporters as idiots. Paisley got away with that for decades, but Paisley in his prime was a rare phenomenon.
Today’s DUP have forgotten their origin as outsiders. Allister feeds on their double-speak, as they did with David Trimble. They might as well do the decent thing.