The Dromore effect will soon wipe the grins off the Chuckle Brothers

FOR a brief moment last year it seemed Ian Paisley would defy Enoch Powell’s dictum that all political careers end in failure. At the grand old age of 81, he was at the height of his powers with prime ministers and presidents flattering him at every turn.

Commentators had churned out the dinosaur’s political obituary at the time of the Good Friday Agreement. He belonged to the past. Well, they were made to look very foolish.

Then it was said he was gravely ill, not long for this world. Instead, he rose again — proof, his staunchest supporters claimed, that he was on a mission from a higher power to ‘Save Ulster’.

But in a choice between God and Caesar, between religious leadership and political leadership, purveyors of the conventional wisdom insisted that Paisley would always stick with his church. Wrong again: he resigned the moderatorship of the ‘Free Ps’ after an incredible 57 years.

Many felt privately that he would be a stopgap First Minister. But who could say for sure? When ‘The Doc’ boasted he was planning a full five-year term because Ulster needed him, who would dare to contradict him?

Well, actually, the people of Dromore dared. Small, unassuming and quietly industrious, for most people it’s just a name on a signpost on the Dublin-Belfast road, roughly two-thirds of the way between Newry and Lisburn. Home to a fair number of policemen, it’s a strongly unionist town in a red, white and blue rather than a Bible Belt sort of a way.

Most commentators prior to the council byelection there a fortnight ago painted it as a two-horse race between the DUP and the breakaway Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), led by Paisley’s successor in the European Parliament, Jim Allister.

How wrong they were. It was a St Valentine’s Day massacre for Paisley.

Not only did the DUP vote plunge, but TUV voters twisted the knife, handing their second preferences (and the seat) to the original Lundies, the Ulster Unionists.

David Trimble could barely contain his delight at the irony of it all: working with Sinn Féin was one thing, enjoying the experience — as Paisley appears to — is quite another, he scoffed.

The Northern unionist parties like to draw overblown analogies between their puny faction fights and those in Westminster. Supporters of Peter Robinson, the sour-faced but immensely talented deputy leader of the DUP for three decades, hold to a Brownite narrative.

Just as the former chancellor’s cheerleaders pretended that Blair was the problem, so the DUP ‘modernisers’ believe putting the gaffe-prone octogenarian out to grass will solve everything. The DUP’s media operation is firmly in the hands of Robbo’s lads and they are getting impatient. When Ian Paisley Jnr finally resigned as a junior minister last week — despite doing nothing wrong, so he says — they ensured Robinson’s backhanded compliments about him having done the right thing were widely reported.

There is a saying about the boy being father to the man, but in this case it was literally true: Paisley Snr relied on Baby Doc as his eyes and ears, even prompting him with what to say.

Now he has gone — partly for lobbying a bit too hard for a developer but, some say, as a pre-emptive move — the First Minister suddenly looks vulnerable. He could be gone as soon as the early summer.

If some unorthodox financial dealings and links to developers are all his enemies have against him, the younger Paisley has genuine reason to feel hard done by. The Paisleys are scarcely the only ones in the DUP who see politics as a family business. It is unlikely, though, that Junior’s head on a plate — or even Senior’s — is going to make everything all right again.

Jim Allister and his wild-eyed cronies appear to have tapped into a wider vein of discontent than Robinson supporters imagine. The symbiotic relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin — each feeding on the other’s sectarianism — could have been destabilised.

Up until now Martin McGuinness has been prepared to play the role of loyal deputy to ‘Prime Minister’ Paisley. In turn, the DUP have let pass some comments from Sinn Féin designed to reassure their base. A month ago, McGuinness’s remark about wanting to kill every British soldier in Derry after Bloody Sunday would have been downplayed by DUP spindoctors. No longer.

The other casualty of the byelection result is likely to be the devolution from Westminster to Stormont of policing powers.

Pre-Dromore, London must have thought it rather clever to commission a poll which (surprise, surprise) found most DUP voters quite relaxed on the matter. Peter Robinson might even share that insouciance, but he knows that if and when he takes Paisley’s job, his room for manoeuvre has been constrained.

Bluntly, Robinson doesn’t have Dr No’s deep reserves of credibility with rural as well as urban voters to draw upon. Nor can he pretend there isn’t a substantial body of hardline unionist opinion unreconciled to the new order. The most telling aspect of the Dromore byelection was precisely that the discontent surfaced in relatively easy-going Co Down, not some fundamentalist backwater in Co Antrim.

The question is: now that policing devolution has joined Irish language policy as a key SF policy the DUP cannot concede, how will republicans react? On Blair’s watch, key Downing Street officials held their hands at times like this. Under Brown, though, Northern Ireland ranks somewhere below renewable energy on the priority list.

IF THE DUP has become paralysed on the key outstanding issue from the peace process, Sinn Féin will be compiling a long shopping list of more minor demands, many of which will — possibly unintentionally — needle wobbly DUP supporters. Expect louder calls for IRA disbandment in turn. The Chuckle Brothers Show closes soon.

All this political choppiness means just a little of the lustre will come off Bertie Ahern’s crowning achievement. Nor is the Taoiseach in much of a position to intervene: the dysfunctionality is between the DUP and Sinn Féin, and the DUP and London. On the one hand, Bertie is fighting the ‘loo-las’ street by street over the Lisbon treaty; on the other, his key relationship was with someone who has long since left to solve the Middle East’s problems.

On a more personal level — if there is such a thing as the personal and the political when it comes to Bertie — he can’t help but have felt a pang at Paisley Jnr’s resignation. Here was someone who had actually been cleared by an inquiry but had to go anyway. Just as with Mahon, no wrongdoing has been proven.

It just goes to show that politics is not law. The Taoiseach can count on more friends than Baby Paisley. But Fianna Fáil TDs will be just as ruthless as their DUP counterparts if the stench over bizarre payments rises much higher.

Whether or not Enoch Powell was right, one golden rule still applies: nobody — not even a Paisley or an Ahern — is bigger than the party.

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