16 September 2004 Edition
Can the DUP deliver?
BY LAURA FRIEL
An irate Ian Paisley stood in front of the cameras and denounced reports of his ill health as a sectarian plot hatched by Catholic journalists. It is common knowledge that Paisley is suffering from a serious illness and has recently spent considerable time in hospital but he has never been afraid of flying in the face of reason.
Predictably the DUP leader's sectarian outburst was not condemned but rather identified as "vintage Paisley", a sign that the spirit was willing even if the body was weak. His party colleagues were indulgent, dismissing the incident as "understandable" if a somewhat "over reaction".
Denouncing the reports as lies, Paisley had declared it was because he was a Protestant and journalists were 'Romanists'. Pale, gaunt and physically diminished the DUP leader drew strength from a lifetime of bigotry like a talisman as he hissed of the word "Romanist".
And the question is this. Will the DUP leader allow his party to walk away from decades of sectarian supremacism towards equality and a power sharing democracy? Or will Paisley end his political career as he began it? The signs aren't particularly encouraging.
For the media Peter Robinson, deputy leader, is the "moderate" face of the DUP. His comments during what is being seen as a keynote speech in Dublin have been described as "interesting" particularly his belief that "all the ingredients are in place". Of course there are plenty of 'if's.
"If all parties are willing to embrace entirely peaceful and democratic means. "If shared practical advantages flow that profit those involved, then my party will drive co operation forward with enthusiasm and vigour," said Robinson. The reality is that neither he nor any of his party colleagues have actually spoken to Sinn Féin and according to Gerry Adams, "don't appear to be contemplating talking to Sinn Féin until some time very late next year".
The fact of the matter is that the DUP's current proposals are designed to destroy the fundamental principles of the Good Friday Agreement. To reach an agreement the DUP must be abandon their rejectionist agenda.
And as Adams has pointed out no one really knows if the DUP is willing or capable of sharing power with nationalists and republicans. Can the DUP move away from the old agenda of domination and supremacy and accept equality and democracy?
The failure of unionism's political leadership to move forward is also being played out within their communities. The response of unionist politicians to the recent spate of racist and sectarian attacks highlights their continuing failure to act as progressive forces within their own communities. In recent months dozens of people from ethnic backgrounds have been targeted by racists in a series of organised attacks. It comes as no surprise to most nationalists that the racists and the bigots turn out to be one and the same. In South Belfast the UVF have been identified as behind a series of coordinated racist attacks particular against the Chinese community.
But the outcome of the political talks at Leeds Castle will not be determined solely by unionism. The most powerful player, the British government and the Irish government will also have the opportunity to act decisively in support of the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement.
If the DUP is incapable of moving forward then the onus is on the two governments to implement the agreement on human rights, equality, policing and demilitarisation.