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

No contest — Robinson will succeed Paisley and clean up the mess left behind

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Usually, when a party leader nears the end of his career the interest focuses on the succession. But in the case of the DUP we are heading for a coronation. Peter Robinson will be the next leader and Nigel Dodds will be his deputy; there will be no contest.

It will all happen sometime between Ian Paisley's 82nd birthday in April and the DUP conference, the first in two years, which is expected to be held in November.

That seems easy enough, but don't count on the transition being smooth or uneventful. The end of the Paisley era is looking increasingly like a car crash as the old man clings to power, a lame duck leader who boasts of his rhinoceros hide as people try to push him towards the door and ask pointedly when he is leaving.

It's getting embarrassing. By now everyone is metaphorically looking at their watch and rolling their eyes when Paisley shows up in public. Everyone, that is, except his wife and Dermot Ahern, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs.

"I want him to stay on, especially since he has been in this new government leading the country. He is doing a jolly good job" Baroness Paisley told the Belfast Telegraph on Thursday.

"Cringe making" was the phrase another DUP assembly member used to describe Dermot Ahern's well intentioned pleas of Paisley to stay in office for "as long as possible" because of his help in achieving power-sharing.

"If a member of the Irish cabinet had said that about David Trimble I know the sort of statement Ian Paisley would have been issuing but these days Doc just laps up any sort of praise and ignores criticism" a DUP source said.

The DUP under Paisley resembles Fianna Fail under Charles Haughey, a big machine party well honed for winning elections with questionable practices surrounding the leader and his family. It is amazing how many questions have built up around Paisley after only a few months in power.

Already there is a Westminster investigation by John Lyon, a parliamentary standards watchdog, into Ian Paisley Sr's decision to employ his son, Ian Junior (IPJ), as a Westminster research assistant. For this IPJ was paid £11,000 a year when IPJ was working full time in Stormont on a salary of £62,000 as a junior minister and MLA.

There are superficial similarities to the case of Derek Conway, the Tory MP, who also employed his son, Freddie, as a researcher while Freddie was a full time student. Conway was suspended from the House of Commons and last week Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Met, said he had written to Lyon asking him "whether he is going to refer the matter to the MPS [Metropolitan Police Service] and if he isn't what are his reasons and we await that answer."

Paisley is a minister of religion who sets a high moral standard and we may assume that he has attempted to meet the exacting requirements of Westminster protocol in this instance. John Lyon's investigation will show if this is the case.

There are less exacting standards at the Northern Ireland assembly though. Under rules outlined in the parliamentary Green Book, MPs are forbidden from using their Westminster allowances to rent premises from relatives by blood or marriage. But IPJ says that he and his father rent their offices in Ballymena from a company controlled by IPJ's father in law, Jim Currie, a member of the DUP. They paid £52,000 for seven months rent of the former Pound Shop store – a figure many consider to be very generous.

IPJ told me that Currie was acting for the party and that he was overseen by a committee of party members, including "the chairman of my branch". He said no profit was being made because the rent was going straight into the mortgage with the Bank of Ireland. Such an arrangement is questionable under Assembly rules which state that "a member's office costs allowance may not be used to pay rent in respect of a property that they own nor may it be used to purchase property to be used as a constituency office."

Despite what IPJ says, the company that owns the premises is still registered in the name of Seymour Sweeney, a property developer.

There have been so many allegations and coincidences in clan Paisley's dealings with Sweeney that it would take a Mahon tribunal to clear it all up. IPJ has relentlessly lobbied for Sweeney to be allowed to build a number of developments, including one at the Giant's Causeway, which Ian Senior also supported. IPJ lobbied for planning permission for Sweeney to build a row of houses at a scenic spot near Bushmills and then raised a mortgage to buy one though it remained registered in the name of Sweeney's wife Carol for years.

The Land Registry says that nobody but the registered owner of a property should mortgage it. IPJ puts it all down to an administrative hiccough but, even though the property has finally been transferred to his name, Tom Frawley, the Assembly's Interim Standards Commissioner is now investigating this matter. It may well take the police to entirely lay the matter to rest.

There is another intriguing question concerning property and it has not yet been made public though it is a talking point in DUP circles. It concerns IPJ's other constituency office at 142a Main Street Bushmills.

According to department of finance and personnel record it is registered as exempt from rates, suggesting it is occupied by a charity or community body rather than a political party. By contrast the registration for the Ballymena constituency office shows non exemption from the charges. The contact person for the office is given on the DUP website as Davy McAllister, a DUP councillor who was convicted of benefit fraud in 2006.

We don't know who owns this office because the Assembly authorities have turned down Freedom of Information requests for information on such issues.

As with IPJ, McAllister is a supporter of Seymour Sweeney's plans for the Causeway which was eventually turned down by Arlene Foster, a DUP minister.

IPJ says he will support Sweeney's appeal against her decision.

The DUP is suffering from all this controversy. Paisley, once the party's greatest asset, is now becoming a bit of liability. Even if he has done nothing wrong he is leaving a nasty smell behind him in the corridors of power and it will fall to Robinson, Dodds and the others on the ministerial team to clean things up.

We can expect the post Paisley DUP to be ultra scrupulous about rents, wages and other proprieties. We can dispel the Chuckle Brothers image of Paisley's last months in power; it is likely to be replaced with a tough and businesslike attitude to Sinn Féin.

One target for the new regime will be the padded and overblown nature of the Stormont power sharing regime. In the negotiations leading to its formation, the British government was prepared to create enough jobs to ensure everyone had one, much as Bertie Ahern was prepared to allow the number of junior ministries to grow to 20 and Oireachtas Committees to 23 to keep his TDs happy. Tony Blair didn't count the cost when he agreed to a 10-strong executive to do the job formerly performed by four. Now that he is gone the Assembly has to pay a huge bill for the whole overblown panoply out of the Northern Ireland block grant.

Comparisons give some idea of the scale and waste. There is currently one MLA for every 15,700 people. In the Scottish parliament it is one for 39,240. In Wales, it is one representative for every 48,235. The only place that comes close to Stormont is the Dáil where the Irish Constitution lays down that there must be at least one TD for every 30,000 people, not counting the Senate.

There is no way that Paisley, on his seemingly interminable lap of honour, will take the shears to this lot. He would rather blame the press and the Freedom of Information Act for all the trouble.

It will fall to Robinson to wield the new broom.

March 4, 2008
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This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on March 2, 2008.

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