The ruthless DUP knows it was right to ditch Paisley

The former leader's savage attack on his successor, Peter Robinson, is a reminder that his party could see that he had outlived his usefulness.

Imagine if Tony Blair had publicly ripped into Gordon Brown for undermining his leadership and conniving to oust him, telling a television interviewer that his successor was "a beast" and that "his ways are not my ways." Imagine, too, if Cherie Blair got in on the act, adding that her husband’s political career had been "assassinated with words and deeds" adding for good measure that Alastair Darling was "a cheeky sod" in hurrying his departure. It would, of course, be political dynamite.

Well, not Blair and Brown, but former Democratic Unionist Party First Minister of Northern Ireland, Ian Paisley and his wife Eileen on his successor, Peter Robinson and his deputy, Nigel Dodds. In an explosive interview with veteran journalist Eamonn Mallie for BBC Northern Ireland this week, they let rip, describing the "shameful" way in which Paisley was ousted from the DUP leadership in 2008 at the hands of his younger rivals.

They recall a meeting with Robinson, Dodds and party officials where they allege Dodds had said that he wanted Paisley to resign at the end of the week, but Robinson – ever the strategist - wanted to choreograph it and ensure that the Grand Old Man of unionist politics stayed around for another couple of months. Eileen Paisley said she had detected "a nasty spirit arising" in the way some in the DUP were patronising her 82-year-old husband and plotting behind his back.

Current DUP Leader and First Minister, Peter Robinson, denies the meeting even took place and has scrambled for the moral high ground, responding that this wasn’t "the Ian Paisley we knew." He added: "As someone who faithfully served Dr. Paisley for many decades I will make one final sacrifice by not responding and causing any further damage to his legacy beyond that which he has done himself."

However, barbed insults being the stock-in-trade of Northern Ireland’s political class, his deputy, Nigel Dodds, couldn’t resist, saying of Paisley: "Clearly the passage of time has diminished accurate recall of events.”

The DUP will be keen to end this row. It doesn’t like washing its laundry in public, so it has posted no reaction to the Paisley interview on its website. Nevertheless, the interview has dominated the Northern Irish media for the past 48 hours, with the tone and content surprising many who had thought Paisley unassailable, having founded the DUP in his own image: bellicose, devout and uncompromising.

But as the respected Belfast Telegraph columnist Alex Kane has pointed out, the DUP is now a ruthless, well-organised outfit that could see Paisley had outlived his usefulness. Faced with an electoral challenge from the right in the shape of Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice and with criticism by grassroots hardliners that his so-called "Chuckle Brothers" relationship with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, was becoming too cordial, "[d]itching the Doc made strategic, electoral, political and media sense."

Paisley’s historic decision to cut a deal with Sinn Fein with the signing of the St. Andrew’s Agreement in 2006, kick-starting multi-party power-sharing, meant he was no longer the magnetic north of uncompromising opposition to the very idea of working with Catholics. In the eyes of hardliners in both the DUP and Free Presbyterian Church (which Paisley himself founded in 1951), he joined a long, inglorious list of fallen idols who had eventually compromised with the enemy.

Yet he deserves enormous credit for his final massive gesture of political pragmatism. Unlike David Trimble, the former Ulster Unionist Party leader, Paisley actually delivered the goods. Trimble, by far the most overrated of the many contributors to the Northern Ireland peace process, may have been garlanded as a Nobel Laureate for his efforts, but his weak leadership and inability to stand up to his own hardliners pale against Paisley’s example.

The arch-unionist Enoch Powell famously remarked that all political careers end in failure. Although he is bitter about the circumstances in which it ended, Ian Paisley’s certainly didn’t.

Former DUP leader Ian Paisley in March 2010 after announcing his retirement from the UK parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue