The Irish Times London correspondent, the usually well-informed Frank Millar, has learned that Ian Paisley, MP for North Antrim since 1971, will step down at the next Westminster election, most likely in 2009.
As it is impractical to have a party leader who is not an MP, given the primacy that the DUP accord to Westminster, the DUP will have to elect a new leader to replace Paisley from amongst its eight other MPs.
For some time now, and especially during Paisley's health scare in 2004, various DUP leadership hopefuls carried out surreptitious campaigns to position themselves as the front of the pack for the inevitable succession struggle. The main candidates to replace Paisley are Peter Robinson, Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson, and his own son, Ian Paisley Junior.
Frank Millar reports that: "A majority of the DUP's MPs are now privately indicating their belief that this [the succession] should be sooner rather than later, with some advocating a handover as early as this summer in order to allow a new leader to establish himself ahead of the general election". Even if the DUP delays the succession, the media will not, and the arguments and rivalries will damage the party. So it is likely that the DUP will try to carry out a quick and clean transition, and try to give the impression of a united and consistent party.
This leadership battle could not have come at a worse time for the DUP. The party is under external threat from Jim Allister's TUV, which may turn out to be the same kind of "more-extreme-than-thou" threat that the DUP was, in previous years, to the UUP. Within the DUP, while open conflict has been avoided by the strength of Paisley's grip, there are several different camps which risk breaking the party apart:
- The Free Presbyterian tendency - although small in number, may be strong in influence. They would, presumably, like one of their own to take over, such as William McCrea or Ian Paisley Junior.
- The 'Twelve Apostles' (or the 'dirty dozen') who in 2006 opposed the compromise that became the St Andrews Agreement in 2007, and may still harbour smouldering resentment against Paisley's entry into government with "unrepentant terrorists". This group includes people like Dodds, Gregory Campbell, McCrea, Maurice Morrow, and several who have already left the DUP, like Jim Allister and a swathe of District Councillors.
- The modernist pragmatic tendency, including people like Peter Robinson and Jeffrey Donaldson, who know that they have to engage in real politics rather than sniping from the bushes.
Each of the possible leadership candidates has strengths and weaknesses, but each of them might alienate another block within the party:
Peter Robinson: the front-runner. He has consolidated his position by appearing to be a tough Finance Minister, but as a non-Free Presbyterian he will lose the religious vote. He was not reputed to be part of the 'dirty dozen' and may therefore lose their support. In a poll carried out at the 2006 DUP annual conference he was the favourite to replace Paisley, attracting 37% support.
Jeffrey Donaldson: As an ex-UUP member he may still be seen by traditional DUP members as 'not one of us'. Also may be too modern for the traditionalists. In the 2006 poll, he received just 1% of the voters.
Nigel Dodds: Seen as both modern and yet traditional. He was linked to the 'dirty dozen', but as a barrister and an urban MP he is not tainted with the old-fashioned religious bigotry of the DUP. In the 2006 poll he came second, with 25% support.
William McCrea: A great favourite of the Free Presbyterian wing, but universally loathed by most moderates, not least for his associations with loyalist mass-murderer Billy Wright. In the 2006 poll he attracted 2% support.
Ian Paisley Junior: Commands some support amongst those who see the DUP as a Paisley Party. He has been pushed to the front of the party on a number of occasions, and is doing his best to increase his popularity and support in North Antrim, a seat he would have to win to be eligible to stand as party leader. However, recent reports (and here) (including from erstwhile ally, Jim Allister) of sleaze may seriously damage his chances.
Gregory Campbell, Sammy Wilson, David Simpson, and Iris Robinson are all eligible candidates, as MPs, but lack any widespread support.
If Robinson is elected leader, as seems likely, the actions of the DUP traditionalists, in particular the remnants of the 'dirty dozen', will be interesting to watch. In 2006 and early 2007 they had nowhere to go, so they bit their lips and stayed, for the most part, in the DUP. But now in 2008 they have a ready-made ship to jump to – Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice. Some ex-DUP members, including district councillors, have already moved to the TUV, but others may be awaiting the outcome of the leadership contest before they make up their minds. The outcome of the TUV's first electoral adventure may help some to decide.
If one of the traditionalists wins – Dodds, for instance – the positions of Robinson and Donaldson appear difficult. As ex-heir-apparent, could Robinson swallow his pride, and continue to work on under Dodds? More importantly, could the whole structure continue to operate with an anti-agreement (both Good Friday and St Andrews) leader at the head of the DUP? So far, the Executive has managed to work to a great extent because Paisley and McGuinness have overcome their mutual antipathy in order to make it work. Dodds may not wish to do so or even be able to.
The stakes are high for the DUP, and if they fluff the hand-over of power in 2008 their performance in the multiple elections of 2009 may be under threat. If sufficient numbers of alienated DUPers switch to the TUV, the European Parliament election in 2009 will be interesting. At present the DUP sees Jim Allister as a 'dead man walking', who won his Euro seat as a DUP member and who will lose it now that he is no longer in the DUP. But if the DUP splits, then Allister's chances of holding the seat improve.
2009 also will see a Westminster election, at which the DUP is hoping to wipe out the UUP, and as a bonus to steal Fermanagh-South Tyrone from Sinn Féin. But if the TUV gains even a small proportion of the unionist vote in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, then Sinn Féin will retain the seat, as in 2005.
And last but not least, the new Councils should be elected in 2009. A divided DUP will be a weak DUP, and its share of the seats on these new and more powerful councils will suffer.
So, the future of unionism in Northern Ireland is dependent, in the short term on the outcome of an otherwise insignificant election, which will demonstrate how much support the TUV has in the unionist heartlands, and then, in the medium term on the DUP's ability to survive the long awaited leadership succession contest.