Imagine a Northern Irish politician who takes to primetime TV, tells Ulster’s political class to “get over” their sectarian hang-ups and extols the virtues of Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness.
For Britons of a certain age, the name Ian Paisley is perhaps unlikely to spring to mind immediately. The late Democratic Unionist party leader, is remembered just as much as the fire and brimstone preacher who heckled Pope John Paul II and vowed no surrender as he is the man who the man who build bridges with Republicans and saved power-sharing at Stormont.
Now his son, North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jr, has taken up what belatedly became the family business – reconciliation.
On the day McGuinness resigned as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Paisley made a candid tribute to the ailing former IRA commander. “I think it’s important that we actually do reflect on the fact we would not be where we are in Northern Ireland in terms of having stability, peace and the opportunity to rebuild our country if it hadn’t been for the work he did put in, especially with my father, at the beginning of this long journey,” he said.
Then, in the aftermath of the DUP’s painfully misjudged election campaign, he spoke of the need for his party to eat “humble pie”.
Paisley’s frank analysis of the campaign has been, for some on his side, an uncomfortable corrective. Thanks to the “cash for ash” scandal, and the dislocation caused by Brexit, a once near-indestructible movement is now teetering on the edge of an existential crisis.
When we meet in his Westminster office, Paisley is in a similarly forthright mood. His assessment of his party’s campaign, whose playbook consisted mainly of attacks on the supposed radicalism of Sinn Fein, is blunt: “It didn’t work”.
He believes the failure of the unionist community to adopt a conciliatory tone played a big part. Casual observers of Northern Irish politics might be surprised to hear this – infamously, Paisley Jr was once so conciliatory as to shout “moo, moo, moo” while a member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition gave a speech on the peace process. But the political landscape – and the tone of debate – have since changed beyond recognition.
“On the face of it, yes, we got an extra 25,000 votes, very good, pat on the head,” Paisley says. “But it had the reverse effect on nationalists. And the reason that we never re-ran the smash Sinn Fein campaign from the 1980s is because that campaign didn’t work, and this was almost a repeat.
“That tactic of attacking Sinn Fein galvanised nationalist voters – and there was already considerable sympathy for a retiring and sickly Martin McGuinness. That certainly boosted the nationalist feeling that they had to ‘do this for Marty!’ sort of thing. Everything came together, but I don’t believe it was a perfect storm. That, in my view, would be a trivial excuse.”
The DUP was not ready for a snap election, he believes, that “everyone knew could have been avoided”. Unionist parties were “caught napping” and the electorate’s trust “could take years to rebuild”. Paisley know this criticism will cut deep. “It’s a very serious allegation,” he says. “But it’s absolutely right.”
Few could disagree. The DUP lost 10 seats, the Ulster Unionists six. Sinn Fein, now led by the telegenic Michelle O’Neill, reaped the rewards of a four per cent swing, while the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party proved more resilient than many pundits had assumed. The non-sectarian Alliance party also put in a strong showing. For Paisley, the short-term prognosis is bleak: “We’re in a very serious position as a unionist community as a result of this election – probably the most serious and precarious position unionism has been in since the 1980s.”
Paisley is among a growing number of influential loyalists ready to back a merger or electoral alliance between the DUP and its rival. But unionism’s diminished representation at Stormont is the least of the movement’s worries. The DUP enthusiastically backed Brexit, but leaving the EU has given rise to the most intense and urgent questioning of the future of Northern Ireland’s place in the union in recent memory. A succession of peace process veterans have warned that the return of a hard border between north and south could be inevitable. Pessimistic commentators worry this very tangible consequence of a hard Brexit could give succour to renewed violence.
Though Paisley fears that the spectre of reunification referendum after reunification referendum could leave Northern Ireland “on the windowsill of the union”, he dismisses the idea of a hard border outright. “I’m a loyalist, regarded by some as a hardline unionist,” he says. “I don’t want the border to be gun turrets and police patrols and excise people. I lived through that! That was awful! It sounds obvious, but wasn’t what we wanted in our country.”
He believes there is no possibility of a return to the Ulster of old – a “basket case” that was at risk of “ending up some sort of Kosovo”. Instead, he expects that the Republic, when confronted with its new reality as a net contributor to the EU budget after Brexit, will follow the UK and quit Brussels (not one opinion poll has come close to bearing this prediction out).
“I want free movement,” he says. “I want cordial relationships with my southern neighbours. It makes no sense. It doesn’t have to be. The only people that appear to be asking for a hard border are those who want to stay in the EU and I’m confused by their insistence that that must be the case.
“The argument about guns and bombs coming back? Are you telling me that people are going to pick up the pitchfork and the Armalite again over Brexit? I sincerely hope not. I thought that that war was largely addressed by the Belfast Agreement – that we were going to take this country forward on the basis of peace.”
Now his party must prove they are willing and able to do so. Paisley believes they can – but it won’t be easy. For all the talk of Sinn Fein reinventing themselves, Paisley – perhaps predictably – finds “as much obstreperousness” among its young bloods as he does the old guard.
He argues that the post-ceasefire electorate are largely unmoved by sectarianism and will vote, above all else, for “competency in government”. “I look at teenagers today who are about to be first time voters,” he says. “Me getting up and beating a loyalist drum isn’t going to get them into the polling station.”
Here Paisley speaks with a candour that seems beyond some in the upper ranks of his party. Critics accuse him of softening the ground for a return to Stormont. There is no vacancy – for now – and he insists he has no intention of going back.
“I don’t see it,” he says. “I did 13 years – it sounds like a prison sentence – in Stormont and I really enjoyed them.” Paisley sees himself as one of the heavy lifters in the early days, as politicians struggled to get the institutions up and running. “Stormont should now be about management, it should not be about crisis,” he says. “We’re at crisis point: would I go back at this point? No. I see my future at Westminster.”
That he does is unsurprising. The DUP were arguably the real winners of the 2015 general election, after the Tories won a majority as slim as it was unexpected. The party wields outsized influence over Theresa May (“She’s a cute lady. I think she’ll be a great prime minister”) as a result. Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire’s close relationship with the party, and seemingly creative interpretation of the concept of impartiality, has led nationalists to claim he cannot be “an honest broker” in ongoing negotiations.
A period of direct rule from the Northern Ireland Office, superficially at least, could suit both main parties at Stormont. But Paisley disagrees. “The one thing that has come out of the vote is that it’s very clear that people want devolution. I could be selfish and say if we get direct rule, that suits me. I’m sitting here with seven of my colleagues and the Conservatives have a slim majority. But this ain’t a sprint, this is a marathon. Those short-term benefits will be very short-term.”
Whether his party – Westminster’s masters of strategic bargaining – agree is another matter.