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. 

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder