Despite Paisleys’ blast, Robinson can feel relieved

Eamon Mallie interviews Ian Paisley.
Eamon Mallie interviews Ian Paisley.

At the end of a week where Ian Paisley publicly denounced him as “the beast”, it may seem extraordinary to suggest that Peter Robinson is probably feeling relieved.

Yet the First Minister has cause to be much more relaxed today than he was last week, as he waited to hear exactly what his predecessor had said.

For all the column inches and hours of broadcast time which Lord Bannside’s astonishing comments have this week attracted, the DUP has thus far emerged about as united and intact as it could have hoped.

There is, in the words of one DUP MLA declining to talk about the controversy, a “15-line whip” out from the party hierarchy prohibiting conversations with journalists about the DUP founder’s central allegation that he was forced out of the leadership by senior figures including Mr Robinson.

But among those prepared to talk on an off-the-record basis, there is surprising unity.

Not a single DUP member spoken to by the News Letter this week has defended either the Paisleys’ decision to do the interview or their sense of grievance at how he left the leadership.

Even those who have long had strained relationships with Mr Robinson (often those from the old Paisley wing of the party) are privately dismayed by their political icon’s actions.

Almost all who speak about the spat say they feel “profound sadness” at what has happened. Many in the DUP and Free Presbyterian Church blame Dr Paisley’s wife for his current state of mind, refusing to countenance the possibility that the preacher-politician could have so rabidly savaged the party and church he nurtured into life.

And one prominent DUP member deeply loyal to Dr Paisley said that Mr Robinson had handled the situation in a “statesmanlike” manner by not trading insults with the party’s founder.

In one sense, the extreme nature of the Paisleys’ comments have made Mr Robinson’s life easier.

Many Paisley loyalists within the DUP (and even Jim Allister) felt sympathy for the Robinsons after the deeply personal allusions to the First Minister’s marriage.

And while Lord Bannside’s ferocious broadside will have stung Mr Robinson, the political impact would have been much more damaging had the former First Minister recanted about power-sharing with Sinn Fein.

Such a U-turn would have been a huge fillip to the opponent Mr Robinson probably fears most, Jim Allister. As it was, Mr Allister’s only real attack on the party which stuck was to highlight that the DUP’s claim to be a “family” had been demolished.

But despite the fact that the DUP leadership will probably be broadly relieved today, the programme has left it with very obvious problems.

Many viewers will have retained the image of a party which is at war behind the scenes; that will be exploited by opponents come election time, as will the astonishingly colourful language used by the Paisleys to describe senior DUP figures.

North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jnr’s position within the party has long appeared semi-detached from the Robinson leadership; now, despite a massive personal majority, he is in a precarious position, perhaps not even able to influence the identity of Mr Robinson’s successor, much less ever hope to lead the party.

This week’s comments from Wallace Thompson criticising Peter Robinson’s attendance at Ronan Kerr’s funeral Mass and the decision by DUP councillors in Newtownabbey to ban an irreverent play about the Bible show that the old Paisleyism still lives within the DUP.

And if more evidence emerges which corroborates Dr Paisley’s version of events, residual sympathy for Dr Paisley could again return for some.

But for now, this crisis for Mr Robinson will for many of his internal and external opponents only have enhanced his reputation as, Rasputin-like, near-indestructible.

But like all democratic leaders, Mr Robinson will ultimately stand or fall based on the DUP’s electoral performance.

The Paisleys have had their say, but it will be voters in May’s European and council elections who decide Mr Robinson’s future.

If the DUP stays where they are or grow, his position is secure.

But if voters turn on the party, the DUP’s men in grey suits may just initiate a survey of the party’s MLAs asking them “what are the issues that concern you most 
about Mr Robinson’s performance?”