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Taking risks not always good politics

(Roy Garland, Irish News)

DUP MLA Edwin Poots participated in the "Shared Future" conference at Queen's University last week and admitted the DUP had been "too reactionary and failed to make smart" responses. Poots, while not admitting anything specific, seemed to implicate his party leadership in major errors of judgement. Nor was he accepting that his party was intrinsically resistant to change – something critics normally take for granted.

No, he was accepting that they had failed to box clever to achieve better outcomes and we cannot but admire his frankness. It contrasts with other DUP people who think Ian Paisley has never been wrong. No other DUP politician seems prepared to admit being wrong in anything. To be fair, this is perhaps true of most politicians but the DUP leader shares an unusual relevant characteristic with another religious leader – imputed infallibility and God on his side.

Some politicians are too clever by half but, as Edwin Poots stressed, they must strive to keep their people on board.

For Sinn Féin this is almost a sacred principle that could explain why recent decommissioning was not transparent. It might also explain why republicans remain united while the UUP has suffered. The UUP stretched itself for the wider good even while hardliners used every trick in the book to inflict damage on their own leadership.

Was the UUP right to take risks that drove the faint-hearted from their ranks? Of course they were! The job of a leader is to lead and leadership involves risk-taking for a better future. Ulster Unionists cleared the way for Paisley who can now try to save Northern Ireland from itself. But people have long memories and resent the suffering due, at least in part, to the antics of Paisleyites over 40 years.

DUP hardliners might yet stifle Ian Paisley's efforts when he tries to make serious moves – but many will give him a fool's pardon – until the next election.

Many people applaud the solid achievements of Ulster Unionists and one can't help feeling that the DUP has deliberately refrained from inflicting fatal damage on the political institutions to take advantage when it suited their purpose. As at times an unusually retiring violet, Ian Paisley ensured that Ulster Unionists took all the necessary risks enabling the DUP in the end to enter fully into the political process.

Ian Paisley was never a leader. He was always a follower – prey to myriad prejudices, fears and bigotries that fill his supporters with dread lest his own words come true and they find they really have been sold down the river.

He is captive to the worst excesses of backwoodsmen and we have all suffered because of this weakness.

Yet Edwin Poots' acceptance that mistakes occurred is a hopeful sign indicating new possibilities. We need to prepare for surprises that might shock the UUP defectors out of their stupor.

Republicans needn't be concerned either. The DUP will not renegotiate the agreement. Ian Paisley says he will chair DUP teams on all strands of the GFA and mechanisms are being prepared to keep Sinn Féin on board never mind decommissioning – at least for the moment.

Peter Robinson assures us that Paisley will monitor every aspect and the DUP accepts that institutions must be acceptable to nationalists. The fundamental features of the agreement will therefore remain intact and provide the basis for negotiations.

The groundwork has been done and Edwin Poots looked comfortable sitting beside Martin McGuinness at the Whitla Hall. Other DUP stalwarts have shared studios (and government ministries and committees) with republicans.

They met with the Irish Taoiseach without so much as a snowball in sight and Robinson confessed that he and Ian have had "dozens of meetings" with the Irish government.

Ian Paisley has almost achieved his goal – becoming top dog in Northern Ireland – if rather late in the day.

Even his language has changed and whereas Belfast street graffiti once proclaimed "Paisley for Pope" (or for prime minister) it is the position of first minister that now beckons. Many factors make life potentially easier for him. He expects four ministries and the UUP two in any new executive making six for unionists as against four for nationalists. This could be sold as majority rule.

The monitoring body can highlight breaches of the peace agreement and few can now credibly support soft landings for private armies.

In all of this David Trimble acted the part of John the Baptist preparing the way.

Whether Ian Paisley achieves his dream of becoming "saviour" of Ulster remains open to question.

February 3, 2004

This article appeared first in the February 2, 2004 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News