by David Granville
FOLLOWING MOUNTING pressure from within his own party, Ian Paisley, the 'No' man who eventually said 'Yes', has been forced to announce that he is standing down in May as Stormont first minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.
Although Paisley has made it clear that he will stay on as an assembly member and member of the Westminster parliament, his announcement marks a significant step back from the political front line.
The reappointment of the DUP leader's son, Ian Paisley Jnr, to Northern Ireland's policing board, within days of his son's resignation as a Stormont junior minister, may have been the final straw for senior party figures.
In reality, storm clouds had been gathering over the DUP leader ever since he embarked on the final stages of his transformation from flat-earth unionist and intransigent sectarian bigot to power-sharing political pragmatist.
For many unionists, nationalists and republicans alike, the agreement with Sinn Fein, at the St Andrews in October 2006, which was to lead to the revival of the Good Friday institutions, was, to say the least, unexpected.
Even then, few believed that Paisley would honour the agreement, let alone develop a positive and constructive relationship with former IRA leader Martin McGuinness once the assembly and executive were up and running again in May 2007.
Had not Paisley made a point of withdrawing from the talks which led to the Good Friday agreement, vociferously opposed it in the referendum, set out his determination to "smash" it, and mercilessly harried the leaders of the Ulster Unionist Party for engaging with Sinn Fein?
In the months prior the St Andrews agreement, there was little indication that major change was afoot. Indeed, in July 2006, Paisley was still busy reassuring unionists that Sinn Fein were "not fit to be in government" and that if they ever were it would be over the "dead bodies" of the DUP leaders.
It was hardly surprising, therefore, that many saw Paisley's later agreement to work alongside Sinn Fein in reviving the Good Friday institutions as nothing less than hypocrisy. And so it was, though it was far from being inexplicable.
Paisley now admits that the St Andrews deal came about because he had no choice. The British/Irish threat to bring about greater Irish involvement in the north's affairs, was just too unpalatable to contemplate.
However, what some have failed to recognise is the importance, for Paisley, of the battle within unionism - a battle which has occupied the formidable energies the DUP leader in equal measure to those fought against nationalism, republicanism or the Catholic church.
There should be no doubt that Paisley and the DUP's rise to ascendency within unionism at the 2005 Westminster elections, where the party taking nine out the ten seats won by unionists, was central to Paisley's re-invention as a political pragmatist. The DUP 's consolidation of its position at the 2007 assembly elections, further smoothed the way for Paisley's final transformation.
Throughout his political career, Paisley played a role in the demise of five previous Ulster unionist leaders, including the UUP's David Trimble. Once firmly ensconced at unionist 'top dog', the prospect of being able to laud it over his unionist rivals as first minister was one temptation that Paisley just couldn't resist.
An indication of the bitterness with which the fight for domination within unionism has been fought is evident from the scathing assessments made by the likes of current UUP leader Reg Empey or the right-wing historian and unionist admirer Ruth Dudley Edwards following Paisley's recent announcement.
Vanity and political expediency, significantly aided by Sinn Fein's endorsement of the police in January 2007 and further confirmation that the IRA was sticking to its promises, ushered in a new chance for reviving the Good Friday process.
To the consternation of many, the unlikely pairing of Paisley and MacGuinness took to their new a task with consummate good grace, enthusiasm and a surprising degree of bonhomie.
The unease that all this caused within the DUP, and within its wider constituency - working-class unionism - has been steadily on the rise ever since. However, despite the grumbles and the odd defection, Paisley's position had seemed unassailable, until recently.
The controversy caused by Ian Paisley jnr's relationship with the property developer Seymour Sweeney - evidence that clientism and croneyism long associated with politics in the south is alive and well north of the border - had become a major embarrassment for the party.
The same can be said of Ian snr's decision to pay Ian jnr around £11,000 a year as his Westminster research assistant, while the latter was working full-time as an assembly member and Stormont junior minister on a salary of £62,000. It was the announcement that the payment was to be investigated by Britain's parliamentary standards commissioner which triggered Ian jnrs ministerial resignation in February.
One of the clearest sign that Paisley snr's political career was running into trouble came about when he was forced to stand down in January as moderator of the breakaway fundamentalist church he co-founded of back in the early 1950s. Fed for nearly six decades on a diet of anti-Catholicism and anti-republicanism, Paisley decision to work with Sinn Fein to revive the Stormont power-sharing assembly was evidently a step too far.
Outside of the church, right-wing unionist opposition has centred on former DUP MEP Jim Allister, whose new political 'grouping' Traditional Unionist Voice recently split the DUP vote at the recent Dromore council bye-election, unexpectedly allowing the Ulster Unionist Party to retain the seat.
After nearly a decade of steady DUP advance, the political impact of the UUP victory set serious alarm bells ringing within the party.
How these developments will impact on power-sharing or on the possibility of some form of re-alignment with unionism, is unclear at this juncture.
If, as is widely expected, Paisley's DUP deputy, Peter Robinson, succeeds him as leader and first minister, major changes are unlikely in the short term - although the succession may provide an opportunity to demonstrate'traditional' unionist credentials by playing hard ball with republicans and nationalists over the proposed transfer of judicial and policing powers in May. A far cooler, and potentially tenser, relationship between MacGuinness and Robinson is another likely outcome.
Among progressives and democrats there will be few tears for the plight of Paisley. For all but the final furlong of a political marathon spanning five decades it would be impossible to describe his contribution to the politics of the six-county rump of England's oldest colony as anything other than malign.
Without Paisley's decades of sectarian rabble-rousing, fear-mongering and efforts to put a spanner in the works of every reform initiative going, Northern Ireland might have been somewhere approximating where it is now 35 years ago.
Still, whatever brought it about, Paisley's final furlong has been an important one and for that, at least, we should be thankful.
A slightly edited version of David Granvilles article was originally published on the Morning Star on 11.03.08.
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Copyright © 2008 David Granville