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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.

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

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.