“I have a sentimental weakness for my children, and I spoil them as you can see; they talk when they should listen.”
Don Corleone in The Godfather
At the moment, you can’t see the big hole in Cromac Square where the road has collapsed. The Roads Service have it cordoned off until it can be repaired. But this flags up an uncomfortable truth for us. There’s a sort of historical myth that the industrial development of Belfast was down to the natural harbour. Fact is, even though the city lies at the head of the lough and it became a busy port, there was no natural harbour – the city was built on reclaimed land. So an awful lot of those impressive-looking big buildings in the city centre are resting on wooden frames which in turn are resting on silt, and are sinking infinitesimally year on year. What the Cromac Square event shows us is how quickly something that looks permanent can be hit by subsidence.
Which brings me nicely to the book of the moment, David Gordon’s The Fall of the House of Paisley. Readers of the Belfast Telegraph will of course be familiar with David as the investigative reporter who is a dab hand with the old Freedom of Information request. He had more than a walk-on part in the downfall of the Paisley dynasty, so it’s only fitting that he’s providing the narrative here. And quite a narrative it is.
What we don’t have here is a replication of what’s already been done. The extensive biographical background in Ed Moloney’s Paisley: From Demagogue to Democrat is not rehashed. Nor is the in-depth theological deconstruction in Dennis Cooke’s wonderful Persecuting Zeal, still for my money the toughest critique of Big Ian because it hits him where it’s most important. What we do have is a most entertaining run through the events that shook the House of Paisley over the last three years or so. This takes us from Papa Doc’s coronation as First Minister in 2007 to his abrupt resignation as DUP leader and Executive head a year later, not to mention his enforced departure as boss of the Free Presbyterian Church, the fundamentalist denomination he had founded all the way back in 1951 and been permanent moderator of for as long as anyone could remember.
What happened, then? There were several interlocking features, including unrest in the DUP’s voter base (although the party itself remained remarkably disciplined), unrest in the Church, the eagerness of Peter Robinson after thirty long years as deputy leader to ease the octogenarian leader into retirement – and, running through this like lettering through a stick of rock, the Junior Problem. The rebellion of the base against a man they had for decades regarded quite literally as God’s anointed leader would be a story worth telling in itself, but the antics of Ian Jnr add just that note of low farce that your humble scribe enjoys.
There are a number of things we don’t know for sure. We don’t know exactly why Paisley did the deal with the Provos in the first place; and we don’t know the exact process of his resignation. The DUP maintains a strict omertà when it comes to such issues, so the best we have to go on is informed speculation. Several things are clear, however. The groundwork for the deal can be seen in the DUP’s decision in 1998 not to go into opposition in the Assembly, but to nominate semi-detached ministers who would run their departments but not attend Executive meetings. Some while later, it became clear that the Robinson faction wanted to cut a deal – Jim Allister, not an unbiased witness admittedly, dates this no later than 2000. There was a transparent strategy of first destroying the Official Unionists and then, once the DUP was in the driving seat, cutting a deal that was more amenable to the DUP’s concerns.
So much we can say with confidence. It was also the case that, if the DUP could be brought on board, it could be a much more reliable coalition partner than the OUP, simply because David Trimble always had around half of his anarchic party openly scheming against him. The DUP’s fierce internal discipline – including making candidates sign undated resignation letters in case they went off message – was a whole different kettle of fish. But to make it work, you needed Paisley, and his unique personal authority. A Robinson-led DUP would have suffered a much bigger schism; as it was, the loss of only Jim Allister and a dozen or so councillors must have looked very manageable at the outset.
So the trick was to get Paisley to sign up. Since it’s unlikely the man himself will ever provide a cogent account, we aren’t sure why Dr No suddenly became Dr Yes, and a number of interviewees proffer their own theories. One theme is the serious illness, its nature still a closely guarded secret, that Paisley suffered in 2004. It is suggested that, realising his own mortality, he wanted to bow out on a positive note, having built something up rather than tearing it down. Others point to his not inconsiderable ego, which Tony Blair took great care to flatter. Certainly, the idea of being prime minister appealed mightily to him. It’s also interesting that Robinson became very nervous of letting Paisley negotiate one-on-one with Blair, such was his tendency to go off script. It’s likely to be quite a while before we know the details.
What isn’t in dispute is that the DUP didn’t prepare its base for a deal, which was a key difference between it and PSF. The Provo base is willing to buy whatever Gerry is selling, but he still has to make the sale. The DUP, as Robinson has subsequently acknowledged, didn’t make the sale. They came out of the St Andrews talks sounding very non-commital about a deal; they went into the 2007 Stormont election still sounding non-commital. Even when they struck the deal, they promised a battle a day in the Executive. And what did the DUP base get? They got the Chuckle Brothers.
Personal chemistry is an odd thing. Although Paisley has a justified name as a fierce polemicist, in person he’s often absolutely charming. Up in North Antrim, stories of his personal warmth and kindness abound, including from people who consider him a totally destructive force politically. Martin McGuinness is also a very likeable and gregarious chap. Compared to the previous Stormont double act of the congenitally spiky David Trimble and the rather grumpy Séamus Mallon, maybe it wasn’t that surprising that the odd couple would hit it off on a personal level. But it still looked really weird in political terms. Nor did it make any sense at all to the DUP base. They had been told that their party was entering government purely to ward off the threat of joint sovereignty, and they were going to get their battle a day. They surely didn’t expect their leader to actually enjoy sharing power with the enemies of Ulster.
Initially, however, Papa Doc faced more trouble in his church than in his party, which is itself instructive. The thing to remember is that, though Paisley is by far the most prominent churchman in the north, and it was largely his polemics that forced the largest Protestant denomination, the Irish Presbyterian Church, into its current passive and pietist stance, the FPC has never really broken out of the fringes. It currently has around 12,000 members in the north, which is about as big as it’s ever been. And yet, the FPC has an importance in that many of the core DUP cadre are church members (though by no means all – Peter Robinson and Sammy Wilson are Elim Pentecostalists, while more recent defectors from the OUP mostly belong to mainstream denominations). For people with this overlapping membership, Paisley was therefore both their political and spiritual leader. Outside of Iran, and possibly the haredi parties in Israel, this is a unique position.
But if heading the government was difficult to square for the leader of a historically rejectionist party, it was multiply so for someone who remained the head of a small, fundamentalist, highly ascetic denomination. The disconnect between the DUP’s mass support base and the Wee Free cadre – more stark in Belfast than amongst the country ‘n’ western element – was already apparent before entry into government, and massively increased after it. This may not be apparent to people who are unfamiliar with the Wee Free mindset. For instance, one of the first internal controversies was around the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure funding Belfast’s Gay Pride parade. DCAL minister Edwin Poots, a DUP member and Free Presbyterian, made a pragmatic argument that the previous Direct Rule minister had approved the funding, and there was no point in him dragging the department into a court case he couldn’t possibly win. This cut little ice.
But when this sort of thing touched the leader, it was far more powerful. Shortly after the Poots affair, it became known that the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister was funding LGBT groups to the tune of £180,000. Paisley could have made the Poots argument; he could also have said that stopping the funding would have required the agreement of his co-premier Martin McGuinness; instead he chose to blow smoke around the issue. This cut even less ice with the Wee Frees, for many of whom Paisley disbursing public money to the sodomites was much more hurtful than him going into government with unrepentant gunmen. Tears were shed and voices raised on the issue. And even the feelgood announcements the OFMDFM loved got the big man into trouble with his flock. So he might open the swanky Victoria Square shopping centre, a complex that trades on the Sabbath and contains outlets selling alcohol. So he might announce an initiative for young musicians, lightly sidestepping his years of condemning rock music as evil, and compound the offence by giving the musicians money from the sinful National Lottery. And then there was the Stormont book launch he hosted for Dana, where he was incautious enough to praise the singer turned politician’s strong faith – that is to say, her Catholic faith.
These are attitudes that seem quaint to the Belfast media class, and are probably shocking to British readers. But a Free Presbyterian in somewhere like Ballymoney would think very differently. These are the attitudes of the traditional Paisleyite movement, and the leader could do himself no good by stepping outside them. His former close friend and chief ecclesiastical critic, the redoubtable Rev Ivan Foster, harried him relentlessly along these lines, going so far as to denounce Paisley from the pulpit. So it was that Paisley found his church divided, and had to agree to step down rather than face an open schism and possible defeat.
The old man’s troubles were compounded no end by Baby Doc. There is no doubt that Wee Ian is the apple of his father’s eye, and the elderly leader, now suffering senior moments in the Assembly, came to rely on having his son by his side as OFMDFM junior minister. But Junior has never been very popular in the DUP – you hear him being openly described in such terms as “brash” or “charmless” or “buck eejit”. Apropos of Simon Mann being released from Equatorial Guinea, I was having a bit of a reread of Adam Roberts’ The Wonga Coup, in which Roberts wonderfully describes Mark Thatcher, another living example of the law of diminishing returns, as attracting trouble like a man wielding a golf club in a thunderstorm. Ian Jnr is very much like that.
A lot of the trouble centred around the north’s only World Heritage Site, the Giant’s Causeway, which falls within the North Antrim constituency represented by the Paisleys. Scientists reckon the polygonal basalt columns, famous from the sleeve of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, were formed by volcanic activity some 60 million years ago. Many DUP members reckon they were formed 5000 years ago as a result of Noah’s Flood. But that’s as may be. The salient point is that this is where property developer Seymour Sweeney comes in.
Seymour had a plan to build a visitors’ centre, and preferably other facilities too, at the Causeway. He has spent years, and lots of money, acquiring land in the area. This was opposed by Moyle District Council and the National Trust, who were agitating for a public-sector facility. It was also opposed by officials in the Planning Service. The Causeway’s World Heritage Site status also brought in the DCMS in London and UNESCO, neither of which were dying about Seymour’s big idea. But this did not fly with the Developers’ Unionist Party, and environment minister Arlene Foster announced that she was “minded” to overrule her officials and give Seymour the concession. Then Stephen Nolan, having been in receipt of a tip-off, asked Baby Doc on the radio whether he knew Seymour. “I know of him,” said Junior, which was a typically smartass Junior answer. And then all hell broke loose.
The resultant storm was mainly to the credit of a fairly small number of journalists, notably David Gordon, who asked the right questions, made the FOI requests and went where the evidence took them. There was also input from a few public representatives in the North Antrim area – from Declan O’Loan, from Daithí McKay and, perhaps most deadly, from Jim Allister, who doesn’t play fair and knows an Achilles’ heel when he sees one. It transpired that Seymour was a DUP member, that he knew both Paisleys well enough to have been lobster fishing with Junior, and that Junior had something of a history of energetic lobbying for Seymour.
This went well beyond the Causeway, incidentally. It included a housing development just fornenst the Causeway, where both Junior and his in-laws subsequently bought holiday cottages. It included a lucrative land deal outside Ballymena. All the Sweeney-related material is in the book. Nobody is suggesting actual corruption, of course – it’s just that the extent of Junior’s lobbying began to make him look like Seymour’s personal shopper, and created a serious perception of cronyism.
And it just got worse. It transpired that, at the St Andrews negotiations, Junior had approached NIO ministers with a shopping list of constituency projects, a couple of them Sweeney-related, that he wanted facilitated. Senior DUP figures were openly scathing about a member of the negotiating team seeking private side deals on things like funding for the North West 200. Then it came out that, although he was an Assembly member and devolved minister, he was also receiving public money to the tune of ten grand a year as a parliamentary researcher for daddy.
What turned the tide was the council by-election in Dromore. This was an area that should have been a walkover for the DUP – indeed, they should have taken it on the first count – and the party put a lot of effort in. Local MP Jeffrey Donaldson was in charge of the campaign, and the DUP relished the opportunity to humiliate the newly-formed Traditional Unionist Voice. But they didn’t. Around a third of the DUP vote switched to the TUV, and the majority of TUV transfers went to the OUP, who won the seat. The transfers were especially ominous, demonstrating that lots of voters wanted badly to poke the DUP in the eye. This was just recently repeated in the Euro-election.
Moreover, the DUP didn’t get – and still don’t – how to deal with the TUV. This is the result of Paisley’s traditional strategy of making certain he couldn’t ever be outflanked on the right. The first rule of unionism is not to give anyone the opportunity to call you a Lundy. When Jim Allister got up and said, in effect, “Big Ian, you’re a Lundy”, the DUP didn’t have a clue how to respond.
It was a stroke of bad luck that Dromore coincided with a row over MLAs’ constituency office expenses, which have been basically unregulated. Billy Armstrong (OUP, Mid Ulster) built a prefab office on his farm at taxpayers’ expense, and only afterwards got round to applying for planning permission. Michelle O’Neill (PSF, Mid Ulster) managed to claim £18,000 for an office in the tiny South Derry village of Gulladuff. That was the second most expensive office. The most expensive cost three times as much, and was an enormous party office in Ballymena, occupied jointly by Rev Ian Paisley and Ian Paisley Jnr. What added spice to this was that the building was purchased by a holding company in which one Seymour Sweeney acted as guarantor.
And so, with the constant stream of embarrassing stories about Junior, he was forced to walk the plank, though still insisting – with daddy’s support – that he had done nothing wrong and this was all a conspiracy got up against Big Ian. What is unarguable, however, is that Junior’s departure from government left the old man seriously exposed, and this helped the Robinson camarilla bounce him into retirement.
It’s a good story well told, and David ends up with some sober reflections on what passes for government under the New Dispensation. The half-baked economic strategy, based on the Brits forking out endless subventions and lots of US investment, looks a lot less convincing given the global economic crisis. Education is still bogged down in the 11-plus debate, with Caitríona Ruane attempting to apply bright ideas from the Queens education department while unionist MLAs, with the sole exception of Dawn Purvis, are so in thrall to the grammar school lobby that they don’t seem to register the massive educational underachievement in the Protestant working class. And then there was Sammy Wilson, the environment minister who didn’t believe in global warming. (Sammy has since been promoted to finance. His replacement at environment is Edwin Poots, who does believe in global warming but doesn’t believe in evolution.) Not to mention the DUP-run culture department, which takes up less than 1% of the Executive budget but around 75% of hot air in the Assembly.
However, the current Stormont system, though prone to sectarian friction, is more or less stable for the medium term. David goes into some detail about how the funding system helps incumbents, and about the unlikelihood of new players breaking the mould. (He is sceptical about the Tory-Unionist UCUNF boondoggle, and rightly so in my opinion.) In the last analysis, he reckons, the system is likely to hold because nobody involved has anywhere else to go. What was the big difference between Sunningdale and the GFA and St Andrews? Different players, same basic deal. Very few people are actually nostalgic for the Troubles – whether the peace process can provide worthwhile government is a whole different question.