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Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Mission accomplished — now Paisley should go

(by Liam Clarke, News Letter)

Who would have thought it would end like this?

Ian Paisley, the firebrand preacher and politician who got to the top by denouncing compromise and venality, ending his career amidst unseemly allegations of sleaze and derided by hard liners for sharing too many jokes with Martin McGuinness?

The bookies are right – Ian Paisley is on the way out. With every passing day his position weakens. He owes it to Ian Junior, who fell on his sword to buy him time, to go while he can still secure a future for his son as MP for North Antrim.

His career has been a stunning personal success. A self made man, he clawed his way from nowhere to hold the highest office in the province. Not many people are still on top in their 80s and Paisley has had the added consolation of seeing all those who opposed him, except Martin McGuinness, swept aside by his onward march.

O'Neill, Chichester-Clark, Faulkner, West, Molyneaux and Trimble have all risen and fallen while he continued to rise. Their positions of influence, their perks, even many of their policies, are now his to enjoy.

Genghis Khan, the great Mongol conqueror and state builder, gave the bluntest possible definition of success when he said "the greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to take their wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters."

Don't take the wives, daughters and horses too literally and that is more or less what Paisley has achieved. He has flattened the UUP, clasped many of its ablest talents to his bosom, and rebuilt unionism in his own image.

He sits on the Privy Council, he occupies the big office at Stormont and, in government, the DUP have squeezed Sinn Féin till the pips squeak. Paisley can pass on his empire if not, as Genghis Khan did, to his sons, then to a formidable cohort of successors, politicians whose careers he had the wisdom and foresight to advance over the years.

It is a stunning achievement. In fact it is mission accomplished. Things don't get much better than that, they can only get worse. The trick is to quit while he is ahead and to have the wisdom to let go before power is prised from his fingers.

Paisley has already held on too long and made a big mistake late last year when he stated, in an RTE interview, that he would continue full term and spoke of instructions from God to share power.

He must have known that it wasn't a popular thing to say, but he was used to getting his own way so he kept repeating it until last week when references to not going on forever began to appear.

The changed factor was the weakened position of his son who, he said in the same RTE interview with Tommie Gorman, he relied on to keep him informed of what people were saying about him in the party. Ian Junior, a devoted right hand man and adviser, also acted as a crash test dummy for his father. This week, he took the hit on many issues on which his father was as much open to criticism as he was.

Both men had lobbied on behalf of Seymour Sweeney. Junior has said that he informed his father about the St Andrews shopping list of constituency issues he put before Tony Blair. They shared the same constituency office and if the amount claimed was deemed excessive for one, it was excessive for the other. Junior may have had two jobs, working as a parliamentary adviser and a minister, but he owed them both to Senior's patronage.

None of this was illegal, but it hasn't played well and it isn't over yet. The DUP are still holding back on details of who employs relatives and there are still more questions to be answered under the Freedom of Information Act.

If he was a gambling man this would be the moment for Ian Paisley to take his money, stand up and leave the table while he is still ahead.

February 24, 2008

This article appeared in the February 21, 2008 edition of the News Letter.