"The lack of equal marriage and abortion rights in Northern Ireland is a symptom of the problem of stubborn politicians clinging to power at the expense of progress."
It’s a headline which would have been an impossibility only 30 years ago, but Ian Paisley MP has been suspended from DUP membership.
No, not that one. Ian Paisley Jr is the son of the Rev Ian Paisley, famous for ‘Ulster says No’.
Since Theresa May approached the DUP with a £1 billion ‘confidence and supply’ deal, I have been appointed unofficial Northern Irish correspondent to my friends. Recent developments around Ian Paisley Jr have raised further concerns about the DUP’s involvement in government, and I feel I am shouting into the abyss.
I am eternally grateful for the support that I get when I raise issues of abortion or equal marriage in Northern Ireland. However, when I start to talk about the ineptitude and stubbornness of the DUP and its effects, I am often greeted with a blank stare.
To summarise the recent story, Ian Paisley Jr MP and his family accepted holidays from the Sri Lankan government to the value of £100,000. Ian Paisley omitted to declare the expenses. He then proceeded to lobby to government to reject a proposed UN resolution to investigate Sri Lanka’s government’s human rights abuses during civil war in the Indian Ocean.
As a result of the investigations into the actions, Ian Paisley has been suspended from sitting in Parliament for 30 days (the longest suspension ever) and he has also been suspended from the DUP pending investigation.
Ian Paisley issued his response in his local paper, the Ballymena Guardian. He writes that he was sorry for not declaring the expenses, but said it’s because the rules were ‘confusing’.
In a breathtakingly ‘whataboutery’ move, he did not apologise for the subsequent lobbying, saying that Sri Lanka had to do everything in its power to fight terrorism, and pointed to Sinn Fein’s connections with the IRA. He maintains that he has done no wrong. In his crocodile tears commons speech, he thanked his colleagues in the DUP who offered him ‘understanding and forgiveness’.
He stands defiant and has suggested that those who voted to suspend him were ‘opportunists, some with questionable motives.’
Ian Paisley certainly appears to have inherited at least one quality from his father – the ability to take every action and frame it in his own world view. Ian Paisley senior is rumoured to have once given a sermon about the gnashing of teeth in hell. When an elderly lady asked about those who did not have teeth, he responded “then, madam, they will be provided’.
This sheer stubbornness to refuse to consider world views outside their own is a common feature of the DUP. This often results in hypocrisy which few, if any can understand. Arlene Foster demands that Northern Irish law must not differ from the UK, yet upholds the ban on equal marriage and access to abortion. Sammy Wilson, who called for the resignation of a Sinn Féin MP earlier this year, believes ‘no further action’ should be taken in relation to Ian Paisley, and criticised the punishment for being too harsh.
The DUP are single-minded: they want to hold Protestant (largely Presbyterian), conservative power in Northern Ireland. They point to the history of the country and argue that this is the raison d’etre of the state. They point to Protestant politicians and Catholic terrorists of the past, ignoring any nuance or overlap. They shut down the voices of LGBT communities, women, migrants, the list goes on. I won’t list them all but simply google any DUP MP’s quotes and it won’t be long before you come across something to enrage you.
Brexit by all accounts is likely to push the population of Northern Ireland to look to Ireland. The population voted to remain, and polls have shown that pro-remain feelings have significantly increased after the referendum. Northern Irish people, contrary to the image their politicians give off, are progressive and open. There has already been a significant increase in Irish passport applications north of the border. This is unacceptable to the DUP and explains their staunch support of Brexit, but not one which could risk Irish unification.
Whilst they do not want a hard border with Ireland, in their mind, it would be preferable to a hard border with the rest of the UK. Connection with the UK is essential to their identity. Several DUP politicians have recently been calling for a bridge from Northern Ireland to Scotland, when the counties which border Ireland lack basic travel infrastructure.
Coming back to Ian Paisley. His actions, and the fact that he is supported by his MP colleagues, show the contempt with which the party hold the processes of the government they claim deserves sovereignty over Northern Ireland. That’s because it isn’t about the UK – it’s about the DUP holding power and refusing to be held to account for that it. The last MLA election returned a result which, for the first time ever, did not deliver a majority for the Unionist parties. The DUP pine for the days when Edward Carson and James Craig ensured safe, Unionist, Protestant control.
That’s why the DUP are a threat. We can laugh at them for being backwards or buffoonish, but we cannot forget they mean business. We call their type of stubbornness ‘thran’ in Northern Ireland. The lack of equal marriage and abortion rights in Northern Ireland is a symptom of the problem of stubborn politicians clinging to power at the expense of progress. They do not represent the people of Northern Ireland, but the demise in politics and clan mentality voting means they will continue to get elected.
This problem won’t be solved by persuading the Tories to give up their deal with the DUP, or by the suspension of Ian Paisley. The UK government needs to start taking Northern Ireland seriously, and work on a meaningful political solution to deal with the stalemates in government. This situation will be made all the more difficult by Brexit. However, if the UK does not act quickly and meaningfully, the question of reunification will become very much one of ‘when’ not ‘if’.