On Paisley and the Union
It'll be the end of an era when Ian Paisley retires in May as First Minister, but more importantly as leader of the DUP - the party he founded when traditional Unionists were getting too cosy with Catholics.
Although Protestant, most of my family and friends viewed Paisley as a bigot and an embarrassment, but he was a useful embarrassment when the IRA was shooting Fermanagh farmers like dogs in their tractor cabs. Like him or loathe him, though, you have to admire a man who held so much public goodwill for so long.
In Ireland, where church leaders are often political as well as pastoral, Paisley pointed the way to Heaven and provided an almost physical guarantee of constitutional rule. He was, in short, the Planters' Pope.
Yet he was not unassailable. His church's right wing rejected him as leader when he shared power with Sinn Féin, and many press reports claim his party rejected him for nepotistic employment practices and for failing to criticise his son's dubious property dealings. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
The fact that Paisley lasted so long at the top of British-Irish politics may, however, be less down to his undoubted political ability and more a function of the utter hopelessness of the Unionist prospect. He was a strong, loud, uncompromising voice during an era when the tide finally turned and Irish Unionism found itself, ultimately, isolated by Downing Street. He did what he prevented Trimble doing ten years before because he had one big advantage over all previous Unionist leaders - he didn't have Ian Paisley standing in the wings shouting "sell-out!".
To that extent Paisley was personally responsible for slowing down the normalisation of Ulster society. Seamus Mallon was right when he labelled the GFA "Sunningdale for slow learners". I go further. If Terence O'Neill had shared power with Gerry Fitt in the 60's we'd have been spared 30 years of terrorist genocide, the DUP would be the TUV, England wouldn't have tired of us and the Union would be no less (or more) secure than it is with Scotland. The phrase "armalite and ballot box" would never have been coined, people would wonder who Bobby Sands was, the Miami Showband would still be playing, Sinn Féin would be a benevolent association for ageing anti-partitionists and, much more importantly, social division in Northern Ireland would by now have experienced the first forty years of healing instead of merely the birth pangs of an uncertain future.
However, we are where we are and must deal with present realities. Paisley's late-career realpolitik was unavoidable and, in the end, the right thing to do. It was right to recognise Sinn Féin's electoral mandate, and it was right, for Unionists, to get the best possible deal while still able to negotiate.
You see, the writing's been on the wall for Unionism for forty years, indeed arguably for 100 years. The following statement may surprise those aggravated by my rejection of Irish terrorism, but partition is neither natural nor sustainable in the long term. Even die-hard Unionists know this to be true and waste no effort on optimistic thoughts of the future. They know there's nothing to gain, only things to give up. Indeed "siege unionism" is now the norm, especially in the West, where every dagger-blow hurts and the golden age is a feature of fading memories, not future dreams. Young Unionists, especially, find this atmosphere so depressing whereas, in the mind of Shinners, the golden age is still to come, bringing a dynamism Unionists find so perplexing and so threatening.
In 50 years' time, Paisley's retirement will be seen as the end of popular Unionism - not because of weak successors but because the job of Unionism was largely completed. Unionism may have served the Irish Protestant during the dark days of the birth and establishment of the Irish Republic, but now that it has matured as a democratic state largely free of the influence of Roman Catholicism and the Gaelic ascendancy we may well see that Ulster Protestants find themselves increasingly attracted to the idea of a borderless Ireland, albeit - I stress - under the right political and social circumstances and in an atmosphere of growing friendship between Ireland and the UK.
That's a transition I've made in my own political outlook, and it's one worth exploring. Our grandchildren may thank us for it.