Watch this space for new generation of DUP leaders

Most people will have found Ian Paisley’s personalised attack on Brian Cowen this week as offensive. In many ways we can’t claim to be shocked. Paisley has been known for outburst likes these for nearly four decades.

There has been a tendency in the Republic to caricature Paisley, to parody him and, in some instances, to be dismissive of him. Mind you, Ian Paisley at times makes himself easy to caricature. He manages to be a parody of himself. His fire and brimstone political oratory contributes to our distorted perception of him. Paisley also heads up a private church, the Free Presbyterian Church (which has branches in Northern Ireland, the USA and Canada as well as missions in the Republic and five other countries). This also makes Paisley a peculiarity to audiences in the Republic.

Many will remember when Paisley was rugby-tackled by fellow MEPs when he rose to scream and shout at Pope John Paul II on an occasion when the pontiff was addressing a session of the European Parliament some years ago. Paisley has often attacked British politicians; he was particularly offensive to Mo Mowlam when she was Northern Ireland Secretary. He has also has regularly lashed out in colourful and offensive tones at Unionist politicians who he feels have sold out Ulster.

The grand old man of the DUP is now 77 years of age. He has specialised in personalised attacks all his political life, and is unlikely to change habits now. The sad reality is that this has usually worked to his electoral advantage. His outbursts may offend the decencies of most modern politicians but too often they play well with his electorate. Paisley cannot be ignored. More than 35 years after his fiery rhetoric burst onto the Northern Ireland stage, he still is a towering if at times disturbing political force.

I had occasion this week to speak to political audiences in both Belfast and Dublin as Nicholas Whyte and myself launched our Tallyman's guide to the Northern Ireland elections. I made the same point to both audiences.

Essentially, it was that it is only truly possibly to understand where a politician is coming from when you half walked in his or her electoral shoes. One needs to explore the electoral environment in which a politician walks in order to comprehend what makes him or her tick. You have to feel the electoral terrain underfoot and feel the kicks they take in the shins in order to truly understand where a politician is coming from.

Paisley has certainly had a very successful political path. He is by far the most electorally successful politician on this island. He has been comfortably elected to the House of Commons at Westminster in every election since the early 1970s. In the last Westminster election, he polled almost one of every two votes cast in his North Antrim constituency.

Paisley has also been big vote-getter in all elections to the various Northern Ireland assemblies which have been in existence at different stages over the last 30 years. In the 1998 assembly elections, Paisley got almost one and a half quotas on the first count, which was one of the highest first-preference votes in Northern Ireland's 18 constituencies. He achieved this vote share notwithstanding the fact that one of his running-mates for those elections was his son and namesake Ian Paisley Jnr. Paisley Jnr polled a further quota of his own in that election.

Of course, Ian Paisley senior's electoral appeal is not confined to North Antrim. In the European elections, Northern Ireland is one constituency. Paisley has topped the poll in all of the five elections which have been held there since the European Parliament was first directly elected in 1979. In the 2001 european elections, Paisley polled an incredible 181,999 first preference votes. Paisley's is the kind of electoral performance that makes even Brian Crowley MEP look like a second-rate vote-getter.

Sinn Féin has repeatedly emphasised that its electoral mandate gives it a right to sit and have its say at the various negotiation tables around which the Northern Ireland political parties have sat with the two governments in recent years. By the same criterion, Paisley and his party have an impressive electoral mandate in their own right. Although the Democratic Unionist Party has chosen to exercise its mandate by absenting themselves from these various negotiations, it still represents a sector of the electorate who will need to be brought into the process of political redevelopment in Northern Ireland if the new arrangements are to be truly sustainable.

I sense that gradually the more moderate elements of the DUP will realise that electoral success isn't everything. Politicians usually fight elections in order to win office where they can have their policies implemented. The younger rank of DUP leadership must realise that in all but elections, Paisley has essentially been a political failure. He is said to be a constituency worker par excellence and by all accounts works hard for all constituents irrespective of their religion or community background. However, Paisley has never held any kind of public office which had any ministerial or other supervision of public administration. He has never been a member of a government but has instead enjoyed a stance of permanent opposition.

This younger rank of DUP leadership are also clever enough to know that Paisley has not had much success in having his political vision implemented. He has been a solid advocate for the Union with Great Britain and of loyalty to the Queen. However, Paisley and his type of politics have alienated most of the population of Great Britain from affection for Union with Northern Ireland. The negative stance which Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party has adopted, most recently on the Good Friday Agreement, has again left them alienated them from her majesty's government.

Paisley is still around but he won't be around forever. The forthcoming Assembly elections will be his last electoral contest as party leader.

There are already signs that the DUP is preparing for the post-Paisley era. In watching the forthcoming Assembly elections it will be useful to keep a close eye on the electoral performance of Paisley's deputy and likely heir to the DUP leadership, Peter Robinson in East Belfast.

Robinson is building a political empire; his wife, Iris Robinson, is also an MP at Westminster and MLA at Stormont for the neighbouring Strangford constituency.

Also worth watching will be the performance of other more modernised DUP political leaders like Nigel Dodds in North Belfast and Gregory Campbell in East Londonderry.

Comparing Paisley to the IRA is harsh at the end of the day, Paisley never killed anybody. However, he has at times contributed to a poisonous atmosphere in which violence has found the oxygen it needs to flourish. In the coming weeks we can expect Paisley to be as colourful and vicious as ever as he plays his part in these Northern Ireland elections. Whatever the result, however, in the months and years ahead, those who succeed to the leadership of that sector of Unionism will face the challenge of moving their electorate on from the comfort zone in which Paisley's traditional negativism has allowed them to dwell.

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