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

The two governments wooed the Paisleys during negotiations

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Early this week the DUP officers will meet to consider the case of Ian Paisley Junior. They aren't pleased but they won't sack him, they can't as long as his father is First Minister and continues to support him.

But that won't always be the case. Paisley Sr will be 82 and April, an age when most politicians have long retired and even he is showing signs of slowing down. On Friday he resigned as Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church, a post he has held since 1951, he has already resigned his European seat and the this week there is speculation that he may soon resign as party leader.

The DUP press office is denying the speculation but senior party figures are feeding the line. Two weeks ago they talked in terms of early 2009, now the notional date is being brought forward to the summer. Nobody can make Paisley's decision for him but fuelling the talk about his departure is a way of putting the whole issue into the public arena. The knives aren't out for him, but his attention is being gently directed towards the door.

The House of Lords and his retirement home near Crawfordsburn beckons.

His one true friend, the one man whose fate depends on his continuing association with the Doc, is his son Ian Junior. The Paisley's are a tight knit family and there is no mistaking the bonds of affection between the two men, sometimes referred to as Baby Doc and Papa Doc.

Baby Doc hovers at his father's shoulder, steering him along, picking up his trademark homburg hat when he drops and it and whispering advice. In a recent RTE interview Paisley senior spoke with obvious pride of how good it was to have as a junior minister in his department someone he could completely trust, his own son. He predicted a bright future for the younger man, and he will almost certainly have it in his power to pass on his Westminster seat to his son.

Few within the party would oppose that. The Paisley name would, barring some shocking and unforeseen scandal, bring him through with flying and he would be effective in Westminster, like a right wing version of Dennis Skinner or George Galloway. IPJ, an acronym which is beginning to stick, is an able enough politician for a backbencher. He works hard for his constituents, he is bright, he is articulate and he can put on a good performance on panel discussions.

As a minister, even a junior one, however, he doesn't know how to separate big issues from small ones and he get carried away with his own authority. He is fast emerging as the DUP's clown Prince. Most senior members, groaning at his latest indiscretions, see him as a Sideshow Bob type character who keeps stealing the limelight with off message comments and unscripted actions.

The latest example was unearthed by Jim Allister, the man who succeeded Ian Paisley Senior as DUP MEP and then left the party in protest at the terms secured for power sharing with Sinn Féin.

Allister was a member of the DUP negotiating team at St Andrews and now he has used the Freedom of Information Act to uncover evidencethat IPJ was pursuing a private agenda in the negotiations.

Anyone who followed the St Andrews negotiations will remember the unrelenting pessimism which was beamed out from the participants until everything seemd to gell miraculously on the final day.

That was when IPJ got a letter from David Hanson, a Northern Ireland Office Minister, telling him "the Prime Minister has considered your requests and has agreed that we should try to respond positively."

The "requests" were £1m over seven years for the North West 200 motor cycle race (IPJ is a fervent biker), planning permisison for a resort spa and 200 homes, approval for private sector land belonging to IPJ's friend Seymour Sweeney to be included in the development of the Giant's Causeway, an upgrade to the A26 in his constituency which would improve access to Sweeney's property and the dropping of a judicial review of the use of land in which Sweeney had an interest. Another concern was the future use of St Patrick's Barracks in Ballymena, a plum develpement site.

None of these issues had been approved by the DUP negotiating team, and Allister asked if leverage which could have been used on macroeconomic and big political issues had been squandered on constituency matters, some of them serving the business interests of Seymour Sweeney.

IPJ claimed that these concerns had only been raised in the margins over cups of tea and didn't influence negotiations. At best this lays him open to charges of naivety. Why, if these issues were just chit chat in the canteen, did they go straight to the Prime Minister and why was a reply delivered just as negotiations reached meltdown.

Perhaps IJP thought that Tony Blair really did give a damn about planning issues at Balee and didn't regard it as a political bargaining chip.

In reality British and Irish minsters were doing their best to butter up the Paisleys to get them into government with Sinn Féin. Ian Senior and his wife Eileen were flown home to his wedding anniversary party on an RAF helicopter when he said he couldn't miss it and would have to leave early. Bertie Ahern presented him with a hand carved bowl made out of a walnut tree from the site of the Battle of the Boyne.

There is no question that all these gestures were designed by the British and Irish governments to secure goodwill. It could be argued that they echo gifts handed over to leading families in Saudi arms deals. In the case of Paisley Senior it was at least all open and above board but his son created difficulties when he kept the letters and the deals to himself. Did he even share them with his father?

Production of the letter may cause problems though they may not fatal. But they represent another piece of mud that sticks, another argument against the continuation of the Paisley dynasty.

There have been others. IJP has sounded off about his disgust at homosexuals, even though he has to implement a policy of gender equality. He pesters other ministers about Sweeny's developments but when asked if he knew the developer, made matters worse by replying "I know of him."

That was carte blanche for the media to dig out pictures of the two men fishing together and highlight details of their extensive social contacts. IPJ is still wrangling over the fact that he lobbied for a development from Sweeney and then bought one of the houses which remained registered in Sweeney's wife's name.

He paid full market value but that is not the sort of thing you want to spend your life explaining and for the DUP it's a distraction from the really big issues they are tackling.

"He has done nothing illegal but everywhere you go on constituency work people are saying 'I see Junior is at his work again'. It's not going to lose us an election in this area but it's not what we want to be talking about. He's high maintenance, and where's the benefit?" a party worker asked.

Last week for instance Peter Robinson, the DUP Finance Minister, pulled a masterly political stroke when he reallocated money from other departments to pay for social housing in the ministry controlled by Margaret Ritchie of the SDLP. It is part of a long term courtship of the SDLP designed to wrong foot the Ulster Unionists and to give the DUP increased room for manoeuvre.

Instead of driving that message home the DUP machine has been putting out fires for Ian Junior.

Everyone in the DUP points out that Ian Junior hasn't done anything illegal or that even clearly against the ministerial code of conduct. Nobody had produced a smoking gun but there is now an unpleasant odour of decay hanging around him, he is becoming a drag on the party rather than an asset.

And he is becoming a liability to his father too, instead of the strong right arm and sure support he set out to be. Perhaps it time for them both a future in Westiminster, Junior in the Commons and Senior in the Lords.

January 21, 2008
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This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on January 20, 2008.

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