Paisley doing more damage to himself than to Robinson

DUP leader Dr Ian Paisley shares a joke with Peter Robinson in 2006.
DUP leader Dr Ian Paisley shares a joke with Peter Robinson in 2006.

Revenge, it is said, is a dish best served cold. Not in Ian Paisley’s case, it isn’t!

His revenge comes piping hot and with a side order of brutal put-downs. Of Peter Robinson, he says: “We are now seeing the true nature of the beast. His ways are not my ways. He has to answer for how he works.”

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

That’s an extraordinary thing to say about the man who has been at his side since the early 1970s: the one man who, more than anyone else, was responsible for building and organising the DUP. Let’s be clear about this, without Robinson the DUP would not now be top dog. Without Robinson the DUP would probably have gone the way of so many other unionist offshoots which have come and gone since the late 1960s.

Yet for all of that joint history and shoulder-to-shoulder political campaigning down the years, Paisley—the man who trumpets his Christianity and compassion—saves his nastiest comment for Robinson’s personal life: “Oh yes, I’m a very happy man…and my wife still lives with me.” No one should be in any doubt as to what Paisley means by that jibe. It was cruel and it was unnecessary. It crossed a line.

Eileen Paisley joins in this time. She describes one DUP MP as “a cheeky sod”. Referring to an internal document prepared by a DUP staffer, she says, “I felt like taking it and ramming it down his throat.” And, like her husband, she saves the real venom for Robinson: “The sleaze came from the Robinson family, not from the Paisley family.”

By jiminy, is she a feisty woman! Utterly devoted, utterly loyal, utterly protective and clearly as deeply in love with Ian as she was when they first met. But watching her put the boot into his ‘enemies’ and ‘betrayers’ wasn’t edifying viewing, even if it was bizarrely entertaining.

Will these two programmes harm the Paisley brand and legacy? Well, as I said last week, I don’t think it will help him. He looks and sounds bitter. He cannot accept the fact that he bears any responsibility for what has happened since he lifted the first megaphone and snowball. He distances himself from the consequences of his actions. He built his church and the DUP. He built Robinson. All three have turned on and abandoned him. My gut instinct is that most of the audience will simply shake their heads and mutter, “sauce for the gander”. This image of an angry, isolated, finger-pointing Duke of York is the image that will linger on. This is his legacy.

Will it harm Peter Robinson? He is not loved by either the party or the general public. Outwardly he is neither warm nor clubbable. He has enemies inside the party. He hasn’t had his troubles to seek in terms of unwelcome media coverage. But he has delivered for the DUP. Under his de facto leadership in 2003 it became the largest party. Under his leadership the party saw off challenges from Jim Allister in 2009 and increased their share of seats in the last Assembly and council elections.

The sheer brutality of Paisley’s attacks on him now will probably lessen the actual impact. The DUP is a clan, almost a cult. Most of them will rally around Robinson and recast Paisley as the enemy.

Will it harm the DUP? The fact of the matter is that there isn’t a pro-Union party capable of mounting a sustained challenge to the DUP. None of them has the organisation or political/financial/electoral/talent muscle to damage the DUP machine. Ok, an element of the DUP has been unhappy over the past year: but they won’t be running to the UUP (which they see as confused, weak and dithery); or the TUV (which they see as being keener to land blows on them than on republicanism). And since they’re not liberals they won’t be jumping over to NI21. Nor can I see many of them giving the PUP a chance, since they view the PUP as the party that sustained Trimble between 1997 and 2003.

All in all, the DUP looks pretty safe in electoral terms. That said, Robinson needs good Euro/council election results in May.

Any sign of slippage will be the excuse that the men in grey suits need to encourage an early exit. Ironically, he seems to enjoy battling with his back to the wall. It brings out his strongest qualities. He loves defying the odds and cocking a snoop at his critics.

What of Ian Paisley Jnr? So far he has been like the dog in the nighttime.

But he will bark: and he will bite. I think he knows that he will never be leader of the DUP, but he may believe that he could prove instrumental in depriving Robinson of the role.

Jnr adores his parents and is, in turn, indulged and idolised by them.

As his father says of him in the programme: “they are afraid of him…that the people like him. The man they put in my place couldn’t keep his own seat, but my son had a wonderful victory.”

I’m not sure that ‘the people’ like Jnr as much as his father and mother think they do: and I’m certain that he wouldn’t come close to winning a leadership race.

Also, let’s not forget that the Paisley brand has, I think, been damaged. The best he can hope to do is gang up with some Paisley diehards at the heart of the party and cause mischief. Which, let’s face it, doesn’t amount to much in the way of revenge!

The Mallie programmes are embarrassing for the DUP—but no more than that. There won’t be a catastrophic electoral meltdown and the party is too tightly organised and too hungry for power to implode. Other parties won’t be able to capitalise because they haven’t the energy or strategy. If Robinson had stepped down last year—as I suggested he do—he could have watched all of this as a casual observer. I wonder if he regrets hanging on?