Last night’s screening of Ian Paisley’s final televised interview, and the astonishing DUP statement which preceded it, leave enormous questions about where the party is going and what it stands for.
Senior DUP figures are braced for days of negative media coverage and, after initially appearing to largely ignore Lord Bannside’s looming attack on its leadership, on Sunday night they released a defensive statement which suggested that Dr Paisley was essentially physically incapable of continuing in leadership.
Six years ago, after Dr Paisley had called the television cameras into his office to announce his resignation as DUP leader and First Minister, the political veteran was utterly clear that he was leaving of his own volition.
He said it was “the most appropriate time for me to bow out”. Days later he told BBC broadcaster Andrew Marr that “I wouldn’t budge very easily if I didn’t want to”.
Other party members backed up that claim. Among many party figures who paid tribute to their outgoing leader was the then Culture Minister Edwin Poots who told the Ulster Star that Dr Paisley was leaving “at a time of his own choosing” while Lord Morrow told the Tyrone Times he was certain the decision to retire was Dr Paisley’s, and his alone, saying: “In the years that I’ve known him I’ve never known him to be coerced into doing something he didn’t want to do. I have no doubt this (instance) is the same also. It’s his decision.”
Given what Dr Paisley now alleges, either the DUP’s founder or its current leadership is either not telling the truth or is hopelessly incapable of knowing the truth.
Neither are particularly desirable traits in a politician.
For a party whose founder’s honesty was believed by his supporters to mark the DUP out from rival parties, it is a particularly damaging episode.
Several commentators — including Alex Kane in yesterday’ News Letter — have said that the DUP is unlikely to suffer any major electoral reverse as a result of this crisis.
That is likely to be the case, particularly given the utter lack of unity within its main rival, the Ulster Unionist Party, in recent years.
Yet there is a longer-term problem for the DUP if these allegations of Dr Paisley are believed by the public.
The DUP has in many ways changed from Paisley’s rugged old protest party to the sleek, well-heeled and more moderate party shaped by Robinson.
But the DUP has inherited many of the problems associated with another party which underwent rapid transformation. Although few senior DUP members would idolise Tony Blair, there are increasing similarities between how Old Labour morphed into New Labour and how out of the Old DUP has quietly emerged a New DUP. With that change has come considerable electoral rewards but, like Labour, the longer the DUP exists as an unchallenged monolith but without the sort of Biblically certain ideology which defined Paisleyism (or old socialism), the greater the risk that it tears itself apart.
New Labour was undone on many fronts. But a crucial battle it lost was when voters turned against the Machiavellian schemings of its top figures and faceless spin doctors.
The revelations and allegations of Dr Paisley in last night’s programme rival plenty of what emerged about the bitter enmity at the top of the last Westminster Government. Many may well feel that Dr Paisley has gone much too far in his attack and may find what he says now incompatible with his party position on why he quit.
But while this interview is unlikely to have fatally wounded Mr Robinson, it could have sown the seeds for a very long harvest, particularly if similar tales emerge from other aggrieved figures. And, although this is likely Dr Paisley’s last word, it is not impossible that as a figure with nothing to lose electorally he decides to continue his attacks on the current leadership.
Even in severe difficulty, strong political parties rarely implode overnight.
After the Iris Robinson scandal and massive controversy over his £5 land deal — arguably a bigger personal threat to Mr Robinson’s leadership — the party as a whole continued to grow.
But with each fresh blow, different party members’ and supporters’ faith in the DUP is being undermined. And as Mr Robinson’s relations with Martin McGuinness also look increasingly soured, there is a real need for the party to define its vision, as much for itself as for the public.
Is it to have ‘a battle a day’ with republicans; is it the new Ulster Unionist Party and, crucially now, is it still the party of Ian Paisley?