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

Paisley's credibility as a leader is at stake

(by Editorial, Sunday Times)

This weekend Ian Paisley is playing chicken with the British government, with Sinn Féin and with the other Northern Ireland parties as he attempts to buy more time before taking a decision he has already been avoiding for months.

While it is right to give him the few extra weeks he wants to help him to preserve the unity of his party, Mr Paisley's continued prevarication is putting a large question mark over his qualities as a leader and decision-maker.

Is Mr Paisley capable of leading a power-sharing government, with all the impossible choices and tainted compromises that would involve? Will he be able to take tough decisions under fire from critics in his own party? Has a lifetime in opposition, a career of criticising and judging others, destroyed his ability to act?

The old jibe thrown at Mr Paisley by loyalist paramilitaries was that he is like the Grand Old Duke of York; forever marching his men up the hill only to march them down again – never following through on what he promised or threatened. They were referring to Mr Paisley's tactic of calling for militant action from unionists and then stepping back when the uncomfortable consequences of that action became clear. He is now displaying the same irresolute qualities in his new role as a deal-maker.

The circumstances for an accommodation between the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin have never been more favourable. In the recent elections, demanded by Mr Paisley as the price of progress, unionists and republicans who opposed power-sharing did not win a single seat. Many lost their deposits. This makes him the first unionist leader in living memory with no significant threat to his right and with no significant armed republican group threatening violence.

The IRA has disposed of its weapons and appears to have disbanded as a military force. Gerry Adams states in the current edition of An Phoblacht, the republican newspaper, that "the war is over – the IRA has removed itself from the picture". On policing, Mr Adams stated that "all Sinn Féin ministers will endorse the pledge of office on March 26 including the commitment to fully endorse the PSNI. There is nothing conditional in that". He went further, advising people "with information on crimes to go to the PSNI".

Even loyalist paramilitaries are urging Mr Paisley to take the plunge, and there is every prospect they will begin decommissioning their weapons if he does. Both the British and Irish governments are offering to pump extra funds into the province, and although Mr Paisley has described the British contribution as "stingy", there are mechanisms to build on what has been achieved. Anyway, more money from the Treasury to rebuild Northern Ireland's infrastructure is a policy on which he agrees with Sinn Féin.

As things stand, the DUP can present all these developments as the fruits of ending what they referred to as "push-over unionism". They stood firm until their demands were met. It was because of their ability to extract movement from republicans that they got a huge endorsement in the recent election. They were elected to drive a hard bargain, while those who proposed no bargain at all were wiped out at the polls.

The mood among unionists and nationalists is for devolution on something close to the current terms. There is also widespread impatience with politicians who have continued to draw assembly salaries but have not operated a government since 2002. All opinion polls show overwhelming support for the salary tap to be turned off if an executive isn't formed.

Mr Paisley has reached the Rubicon. Instead of crossing it he has asked for more time to rally his troops on the bank and study the currents.

He should be given a breathing space, but if he cannot then make a decision to cross, his time as a credible leader of unionism is past.

March 25, 2007
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This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on March 25, 2007.

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