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13 May 2004 Edition

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Thirty years on

Thirty years ago this month, extremist unionist politicians combined with unionist paramilitaries to undermine a power sharing arrangement in the Six Counties. At the forefront of this struggle against any move away from absolute unionist domination towards sharing democracy and equality with their Catholic neighbours was Ian Paisley.

Only a few years earlier, Paisley had founded the DUP, a party that emerged out of the religious fundamentalism of his Free Presbyterian Church and years of sectarian anti-Catholic rabble rousing on the part of its leader.

Also prominent amongst the opponents of any form of limited power sharing was the Vanguard Party, a quasi-paramilitary grouping to which the young David Trimble gave his early allegiance. From the outset, the unionist conspirators called on the muscle of unionist paramilitaries such as the UDA, UVF and Orange Volunteers.

The wreckers' plan was to bring down the executive through extensive strike action. When initial calls to action amongst the Protestant workforce failed, unionist paramilitary intimidation was employed to ensure the majority adhered to the strike action.

And if you're thinking this all sounds familiar, there are also three other parallels to be drawn. First, the British military and the securocrats of their day systematically thwarted the then British Labour Party's power sharing initiative. The British Army's refusal to break the strike determined its subsequent success.

The partisan reporting of the British media championed the anti-power sharing cause, with strike leaders acknowledging their debt to the BBC in particular for co-operating with the strikers' publicity machine. And finally, there was the acquiescence of a British Government that failed to face down the challenge of unionist intransigence.

SAME REFRAIN

And 30 years later at last week's annual DUP conference, little appeared to have changed; certainly nothing appears to have changed in the mindset of its leader. It is war, Ian Paisley told his party colleagues in his leader's address to the DUP conference.

"It is war to the end. It is a matter of life and death, freedom or bondage, whether we shall be serfs of Dublin or free citizens of Britannia," said Paisley.

Raising the spectre of a Catholic-Irish-nationalist-republican conspiracy, Paisley called on his audience to carefully note, "that every time IRA/Sinn Féin has come under pressure, all the energies of the Roman Catholic Church are called into action to pressurise the government to concede something more to them and save them".

Ian Paisley Jr lately labelled the Catholic Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Seán Brady a "terrorist sympathiser" because he raised the issues of collusion and proper policing during a recent address.

Meanwhile, the IRA is being "aided and abetted by Dublin" in the destruction of the unionist people's "place in this island", claimed Paisley Snr. "Destruction of Ulster is the aim and the IRA is the instrument of the entire Judas Iscariot strategy. Treachery is the order of the day," said Paisley.

Curiously, Paisley acknowledges republicans as the engines of change but that's just it, the DUP doesn't want progressive change, it simply wants to preserve 'Ulster' in its own image. Any change that ameliorates the sectarian domination of 'traditional' unionist power in the north amounts to the "destruction of Ulster" in the eyes of the DUP.

EXCLUDE SINN FÉIN

Power sharing with anything other than marginalised and diminished nationalist representation — secured the DUP appear to hope by the exclusion of the largest nationalist party, Sinn Féin — is anathema to fundamentalist unionism's notion of 'democracy'.

Sinn Féin's ability to win the DUP's "approval" to participate does not simply lie in the question of IRA weapons. Republicans must also "end their campaign of treachery"; in other words, republicans must stop being republicans, strip themselves of the aspiration of a united Ireland and accept unionism.

Accusing British Prime Minister Tony Blair of "betrayal", Paisley warned that until Sinn Féin has "turned away completely and totally and forever from its campaign of treachery, murder and mayhem, we will not be speaking to them in any way or negotiating with them at all".

These are the sentiments of a fundamentalist preacher seeking the forced conversion of nationalists to unionism. Republicans must repent and Ian Paisley is waiting to pronounce on their path to redemption.

"True unionism cleansed and delivered from the softness of political expediency, has risen and is on the march. Let all the prevaricators tremble," said Paisley. "Let the compromisers retreat, for I hear the marching feet of the enlarged and newly regenerated battalions of traditional unionism."

Compromise is a dirty word in DUP lexicology and, despite their protestations, so is democracy. Nigel Dodds might, on the one hand, claim that "unlike the Ulster Unionist Party we respect the electorate", but this does not apply to the nationalist electorate, as his party colleague and deputy leader made clear at the conference.

ABSOLUTIST AGENDA

Sinn Féin has a mandate, acknowledged Peter Robinson, but "let me make it clear — electoral success is no substitute for democratic legitimacy. We can work with democrats. We will not work with terrorists."

In other words, political representation is the gift of Ian Paisley and it is the DUP who will decide, not the electorate, who can participate in this unionist vision of 'democracy'. Fundamentalism in whatever form knows no compromise, it does not seek accommodation, it does not accept the will of the people, it acknowledges only its own absolutes, be they religious or political or both.

"You'll never turn an Ulsterman into an Irishman," said Paisley's successor for the European candidacy, Jim Allister. "God has made us as we are" The enlarged Europe was the Tower of Babel, said Allister, and God had punished us for the old one.

And these are now Tony Blair's bedfellows. This is the hope of Dublin's desire to stem the tide of Sinn Féin's increasing electoral successes in the south. The Irish Times editor might choose to comfort her readers with the notion that the "DUP moves closer to power sharing" but there is scant evidence to support such an assertion.

MEDIA ANALYSIS

For Gerry Moriarty in the Irish Times, Paisley's "usual attacks on the Pope, the 'Church of Rome', the Jesuits and the Catholic Primate Archbishop Sean Brady" are simply "unpleasant baggage" rather that indicative of a deeply rooted anti-Catholic sectarianism and anti-Irish racism inherent in the DUP.

The British Sunday Times was more honest in its reporting of the DUP's current position. "Ian Paisley has said he wants to be Prime Minister of Northern Ireland without a nationalist deputy," wrote Liam Clarke.

"In what amounted to a call for majority rule rather than power sharing, the DUP leader argued that the party given a mandate by the people should be able to put its policies into practice without having to get approval from anyone else," said Clarke.

But for Susan McKay of the Tribune, it was just the same old story. Ian Paisley had written "his speech 50 years ago and he stuck to the script".

This week, the BBC is scheduled to screen a documentary about the 1974 Ulster Workers' Strike. The filmmakers will claim that Harold Wilson, the British Labour Prime Minister of the time, allowed the 1974 Sunningdale power sharing to collapse.

"While the [British] Government was publicly professing support for the executive, but saying there were military problems in overcoming the strike, the papers reveal that the actual policy was that the executive should go," said Steve Carson of Mint Productions.

"What I found incredible is that there was no sense of the precedent being set. They were conceding that democratic politicians should be thrown to the wolves when confronted by direct action led by paramilitaries on the streets," said Carson. But then, they were unionist paramilitaries who enjoyed the full support of Ian Paisley and his DUP 'no surrender' agenda.

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