not a member? click here to sign up
People have the power
How Ian Paisley's own community came to deem him surplus to requirements.
Eamonn McCann, 05 Mar 2008
The beginning of the end of the Paisley era came not when Junior resigned from the Stormont Executive earlier this month, but when his father resigned as Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church last year.
The essence of Paisleyism lay in the notion that Unionism and Protestantism were one and the same. This was symbolised in a single dominant figure holding leadership of both party and church.
In the Paisleyite perspective, the fight for the Union was an integral element of defence of the Reformation settlement. To give way to Nationalism, then, was to go against God. Hence the religious fervour with which Paisley had for decades proclaimed the old slogan – Not an inch!
But this wasn’t how the majority of Protestants saw their situation. They have signalled for some time they’d have no problem sharing power with Catholics as long as their aspiration to “remain British” was satisfied – an approach articulated increasingly clearly by political leaders of Loyalist paramilitarism in the 1990s. The approach was reflected in David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson of the UVF’s Progressive Unionist Party and Gary McMichael of the UDA’s Ulster Democratic Party marching shoulder-to-shoulder with David Trimble into the 1998 Stormont talks which Paisley had refused to attend and which were to lead to the Agreement of April that year. The Loyalist parties were reflecting feeling in working-class Protestant communities.
The impact of this pressure from below on the DUP was seen in the party’s manifesto for the November 2003 Assembly election, which called for an arrangement acceptable to “both communities”, rather than, as the party had previously demanded, an arrangement based squarely on the wishes of “the majority”. Outright opposition to power-sharing was replaced by acceptance of power-sharing in return for certainty on the constitutional position.
Meanwhile, it was clear, too, that if equality between the communities was guaranteed within the Northern State, the vast majority of Catholics would put the aspiration to a united Ireland on the long finger, and, anyway, had no stomach for a continuing armed struggle in supposed pursuit of The Republic. It was this pressure which impelled the Sinn Fein leadership to agree to a power-sharing deal which would leave Northern Ireland within the UK. The Sinn Fein leadership didn’t coax reluctant followers away from armed struggle. Rather, they brought the Movement’s position on armed struggle into alignment with feeling in the communities they purported to represent.