Radical Paisley Loses Grip on Northern Ireland Protestants: Unionists Fear Losing out in Talks to Bring Peace in Ulster
Sieff, Martin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
Firebrand preacher Ian Paisley, who for 30 years has blocked any political compromise in Northern Ireland, appears finally to have lost his stranglehold over Protestant unionists.
His loss of influence is a crucial sign of hope for talks on a new political system for Northern Ireland, which are expected to move into their substantive phase next week.
Since the 1960s, Mr. Paisley has presided over an extraordinary religious-political empire. His fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church has blasted the Roman Catholic Church as a modern Babylon and tool of Satan.
Meanwhile, he has sat in both the British and European parliaments for decades as the leader of his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Using these power bases, Mr. Paisley has been able to block any major unionist participation in negotiations to share power between Northern Ireland's 900,000 Protestants and 600,000 Catholics.
The Official Unionist Party - recently renamed the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) - was always bigger than Mr. Paisley's DUP, but it suffered under a series of weak leaders who let Mr. Paisley call the shots.
But Mr. Paisley is now 71, and his DUP is losing ground. Many former supporters are joining the UUP, whose tough new leader, David Trimble, has led his party into the peace talks at Belfast's Stormont Castle.
"Unionism is learning how to be one step ahead of Sinn Fein," which had in the past managed to isolate it, said Jeffrey Donaldson, a Trimble ally and UUP negotiator in the Stormont talks.
Mr. Trimble and his lieutenants fear that if they boycott the talks, British Prime Minister Tony Blair will push ahead with new political structures anyway, meaning the unionists will have no chance to influence them.
"Tony Blair is deeply, deeply committed" to producing a compromise political settlement from the Stormont talks, said Paul Murphy, Britain's minister for political development in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Paisley, as usual, has rejected any such compromise. But he no longer has the support of Protestant paramilitary leaders that he always enjoyed in the past.
Instead, the two small parties that speak for the Protestant paramilitaries - Gary McMichael's Ulster Democratic Party and David Ervine's Progressive Unionist Party - are also attending the talks chaired by former U. …