12 October 2006 Edition

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Paisley meets Primate - Indication of political changes


What's it all about?

How are we to understand the meeting between DUP leader Paisley and Catholic Primate Sean Brady?

The handshake was off-camera, but a Press Association photographer was allowed to capture a smiling Ian Paisley and his party colleagues seated across a conference table to an equally cheerful Sean Brady and his delegation at Stormont. The image was positive and businesslike, with that all-important distance, the width of the table, separating the participants.

And it had taken months of diplomacy to get this far. As recently as 2004, when Dr Brady became the first Catholic Primate to attend the Presbyterian Church's general assembly, Paisley staged an angry protest against the Archbishop's presence. Outside, Paisley and a handful of Christian fundamentalists from his self-styled Free Presbyterian Church labelled the Catholic Primate "a rejecter of Christ" and the Pope as the "Anti-Christ".

It was a familiar theme for a unionist leader who built his religious and political power base on the basis of anti-Catholic sectarianism. "Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness," Paisley said, in his warning against working with "heretics".

Clearly, Paisley couldn't be seen to be shaking hands with the same Catholic Archbishop he had denounced as the Anti-Christ's emissary in Ireland just two years ago. The image had to be far more ambiguous, with just a hint of confronting rather than meeting, Paisley face-to-face if not exactly nose-to-nose with Brady. It had all been carefully choreographed. The DUP were at pains to make clear that Paisley was not meeting the Catholic delegation in his capacity as founder of the Free Presbyterian Church, but in his capacity as the leader of the largest party in the North.

And Paisley wasn't greeting Dr Brady as Catholic Primate, but in relation to his role within the Northern Ireland Catholic Council for Social Affairs. As a spokesperson for the DUP leader anxiously pointed out, the meeting was to be purely "political, economic and social".

Callers to local radio were less clear about the DUP leader's motives. One caller denounced the meeting on the grounds that the Free Presbyterian Church "totally and utterly despises the Roman Catholic faith". Others made reference to the "Beast" and "Satan's seat" in relation to the Armagh Catholic diocese.

The meeting represented the triumph of political expediency over religious fundamentalism, but if some of Paisley's Christian flock were confused, at least the DUP leader was clear about what he wanted.

"During our discussions we touched on a very wide range of subjects, including the benefits that can be derived for the whole community from achieving stable devolutionary arrangements for Northern Ireland and developing support for law and order," said Paisley.

Describing the meeting as constructive, Brady said that they had "discussed the benefits that would derive to all parts of the community from a stable and devolved administration in Northern Ireland. This included the need to develop support for the administration of justice and of law and order in every section of the community as a fundamental principle of democracy," said Brady.

For the DUP leader, 'stable' is a code word for exclusion: the exclusion of republicans and the subsequent marginalisation of northern nationalists - in other words, unionist domination by the back door. Of course the one fundamental principle of 'democracy' the DUP is reluctant to support is power-sharing on the basis of the electoral mandate. Paisley would like to ignore the electorate and exclude the largest nationalist party in the North: Sinn Féin. The fact that he appears to be attempting to recruit the Catholic hierarchy to help him is indicative of the enormous political pressure now being faced by the DUP. It is also wishful thinking.

Despite the apparent willingness of Archbishop Brady to dovetail Paisley's words, it is far from clear whether he means the same thing. After 30 years of open conflict, 'stable' is also a code word for inclusive governance.

And, as Fr Des Wilson pointed out, there is nothing particularly new about seeking out the Catholic hierarchy. "Any time London control in Ireland has been under threat, British officials have headed for the nearest and - in their view - the most influential bishop's house," said Wilson. Paisley is treading a well-worn path.

But the days when ordinary nationalists accept unelected bodies, even the Catholic Church, taking political decisions for them are well and truly over. Northern nationalists challenged more than half a century of unionist misrule and resisted British occupation for over 30 years. There is no turning back. Archbishop Brady knows this and perhaps, slowly, slowly, so does the DUP.

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