D.Day – 26th March 2007

Ten days ago the elections for the newly re-established 108 member Northern Ireland Assembly produced the following distribution of seats:
Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party – 36;
The Republican Sinn Féin – 28;
The Ulster Unionist Party – 18;
The Nationalist SDLP – 16;
The Alliance Party – 7;
The Progressive Unionist Party – 1;
The Green Party – 1;
Independent – 1.

Proportionately, therefore, the DUP have exactly one third of the total. Sinn Féin have just over a quarter. The Ulster Unionist Party have exactly one sixth. The SDLP have just under one sixth. The Alliance have about one fifteenth.

Just before he died David Ervine, the former Progressive Unionist Party member attached himself to the side of the Ulster Unionist Party. However, his elected successor has not yet made an announcement about her position in that respect.

As a result Ian Paisley, leader of the largest Unionist party and of the largest in the Assembly as a whole, and as a consequence of the agreement at St. Andrews in Scotland last autumn is automatically entitled to the position of First Minister. Similarly Martin McGuinness, the nominee of the largest Republican / Nationalist party and second largest in the Assembly, is entitled to the office of Deputy First Minister.

Just over 38 years ago, on January 29th 1969, in the Northern Ireland House of Commons at Stormont Castle, the Labour Party member for Pottinger and leader of his party, Tom Boyd, made a major speech in which he quoted from one made in June 1966 by the Unionist member for South Down, Mr Kelly, later to become the Northern Ireland Attorney General.

The quotation was a comment in respect of the activities of the Reverend Ian Paisley, now a Westminster MP and the nominee of the DUP for the post of First Minister in the Assembly.

This is part of the quotation: “Does he not realise that his conduct will bring about a lack of respect and goodwill from a majority of the people of the United Kingdom, and that some day, if that goes too far, in Westminster by a very short Act of Parliament they will undo our very existence?”

That, as we all know, took place in 1972, under the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, not of course just because of Ian Paisley’s activities but because of the circumstances in which his approach to civil rights helped to inflame the situation.

At many cuts and turns Paisley’s attitude has delayed and obstructed the implementation of the 1998 Agreement. It has also played a major role in the various attempts to frustrate the peace process, including the many suspensions of the Northern Ireland Assembly since 1998.

And now, as it were, the wheel has turned full circle, though the circumstances are in some respects different from those of 1972. He and his party must agree to serve in the Joint Executive with Sinn Féin as per the Good Friday 1998 Accord, as amended by the St. Andrews Agreement, by March 26th. If not, then not by a short Act of Parliament as predicted by Mr. Kelly in 1966 but by the Secretary of State who is empowered by an Act already on the Statute Book to dissolve the newly elected Assembly before it is actually in session.

So how will Paisley, the ‘No No Never’ man, solve his dilemma? Will he eat his own past words, forget the taunts of Lundyism and treason which he thundered against those in the past who sought to engage in reconciliation and in joint efforts to improve the living conditions of both communities.Will he be able to bear and overcome the wrath and outraged feelings of those who were convinced that their past dominance was for ever enshrined in the path he led them along. Will he wince, blush or burst into biblical text when they remind him of his ‘No Surrender’ calls and parades down the Garvaghy Road?

Perhaps he should seek guidance in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, MacBeth, Julius Caesar or the Merchant of Venice and awake from his Midsummer Night’s Dream to smell the coffee and realise, as an American might say, that he’s behind the egg ball!

Prime Minister Blair and Secretary of State Hain have said that if the two parties, DUP and Sinn Féin, do not take on their respective responsibilities as First and Deputy First Minister and set up the Joint Executive as per the composition of the Assembly by the 26th March then closure will follow.

There are nine more days left to effect this. Taoiseach Ahern has said that everything asked for has been given. Will that be enough? Perhaps just to say he doesn’t accept dates dictated by others Paisley may say yes a few days later than the appointed day.

But even if agreement is reached by or a few days after the stated date the wrangling and obstacles will be apparent and life will not be easy and trouble free. Much time and much water under the bridge will be turbulent and, to paraphrase, ‘peace will require much understanding’.

This Protestant fundamentalist preacher, with his heady mix of religion and bigoted political doctrine, has been a divisive element in Northern Ireland for over half a century.

Recently a new species of leopard has been discovered, with different markings than the one we are used to seeing. Could this be replicated in human form in Northern Ireland? Could Ian Paisley shed his former skin and thus be up to the task, fit for purpose?

The jury is still out. Will we have the verdict available on Decision Day, March 26th?

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, South Wales, 17 March 2007.

Samuel H. Boyd