Declassified files: Strains at top of autocratic DUP

DUP founder the Rev Ian Paisley
DUP founder the Rev Ian Paisley

The DUP was an autocratic party in which ordinary members had little say over the party policy or direction - but as the party grew there were strains at the top, a confidential NIO briefing paper said in 1988.

The detailed analysis of what is now Northern Ireland’s largest political party highlighted the extraordinary influence on it of the relatively small Free Presbyterian Church, with political decisions sometimes taken in Presbytery meetings.

It said: “The DUP relies, to this day, on the twin strands of the Free Presbyterian Church and the political party.

“This duality was even more evident in the early days of the party - despite the fact that it relied upon some prominent dissident unionists - so that in 1971 of 15 appointments within the DUP 13 were Free Presbyterians or [seemingly meant to be ‘and’] members of the DUP, only two were dissident unionists.

“Perhaps the most unusual aspect of all this, in political terms, was that many of the party’s decisions were only taken after discussion in the Presbytery of the Free Presbyterian Church.

“For example, in 1973 this was the forum that decided that three Free Presbyterian clergy (the Reverends James McClelland, Ivan Foster and William McCrea) should not stand for the 1973 Assembly elections.”

The report estimated that 60 per cent of all DUP councillors elected in 1981 admitted to being Free Presbyterians.

However, it said that “despite local stories about the transfers of funds there is no evidence that the Free Presbyterian Church actually supports the DUP”.

Setting out the party’s structure, the report said that “very little of any significance happens in the DUP without the leader’s knowledge and matter which is obvious from this structure is that in the DUP, unlike many parties where grassroots opinion is a major factor, the ordinary member has little power or influence”.

It went on: “Party conferences, which have been infrequent in the past, are largely stage-managed and provide no opportunity for the rank and file to influence policy-making.”

The report said that although the DUP was exceptionally well-disciplined, there has been recent evidence of internal strains, resulting in the departure of Jim Allister and the (ultimately brief) resignation of Peter Robinson as deputy leader.

The report included an organisational chart of how the party was officially structured. But it included the NIO’s own assessment of where power lay in the party, with all of the lines heading towards the leader at the top.

It said that one change which that seemed to indicate was that there was “a more open split between the Free Presbyterian wing of the DUP and the secular grouping who see the continuance of party politics as more important.

“Robinson is clearly in the second category and the fact that his resignation as deputy leader did not lead to the appointment of either McCrea or Beattie (as the two most obvious candidates) has been interpreted as an indication that an all clerical leadership is recognised as undesirable.”

It went on: “The third strand of dissent is the lack of progress in bringing down the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the leaders’ obvious desire to keep to himself the various tactics that are currently being deployed (most notably the talks about talks).

“There are fairly clear indications that it was Robinson’s unhappiness about tactics in the wake of the task force that caused his resignation.

“His return to the fold may be an acknowledgement by Paisley that matters are not what they were within the party.

“It is hard to conceive that the Paisley of five years ago would have rehabilitated anyone who had so publicly embarrassed him as Robinson did.

“All this may indicate that Paisley now believes that the way forward involves some degree of compromise and a recognition by him that if he is to take the party along he will need a broad spectrum of support rather than the simple autocratic exercise of his power as leader.”

It said that some individuals had emerged as influential within the DUP by allegiance to Dr Paisley’s church and party. It said that these individuals, examples of which were given as the Rev William McCrea, Rev Ivan Foster and Rev William Beattie, in some cases went “as far as to ape his style of preaching” but had carved out a niche which was “very much in his shadow”.

It went on: “Others have emerged who rely less on the influence of the church or the emotional pull of Paisley’s style of rhetoric and delivery.

“It was the emergence of Robinson in the General Election of 1979 (largely helped by the UDA) and Allister’s appointment as EEC Adviser that gave fresh impetus to the party and it was at this point that the DUP could be said to be likely to survive as an independent party should anything happen to Paisley.”

Later, the report said that “the DUP has maintained links with the UDA”.

And the report speculated about who was really behind Peter Robinson’s infamous ‘invasion’ of the Monaghan town of Clontibret - something about which Mr Robinson and Mr Paisley publicly disagreed in recent years.

It said: “There are some cynical views that Paisley encouraged Robinson along the path that led to Clontibret, the Dublin trial and Robinson’s subsequent embarrassment when forced to choose between a fine and prison.

“Whether Paisley is sufficiently devious or far-sighted enough to plan all of that sequence is questionable but there is plenty of apocryphal evidence to show that he did little or nothing to soften the difficult position his deputy found himself in.”