Postcard from London

Aboard a flight to Rome to cover Archbishop Robert Runcie’s official visit to the Vatican in 1989, I set eyes on the Rev. Ian Paisley a few rows ahead.

When I sidled up and introduced myself — I edited The Church of England Newspaper then — he extended a hand and fixed me with a characteristic Paisley grin. “I read your newspaper every week in the House of Commons Library,” he said.

Throughout that weekend he was ever-present, keeping vigil outside venues for official events and often sporting a tee-shirt saying Christ is the sole head of the Church. (Would Pope John-Paul II have disagreed?) Paisley was always jovial and friendly with media people, who seemed to find him more interesting than the official proceedings, something that hardly pleased Runcie’s retinue.

During most of his lifetime Paisley (1926-2014) was not one to play for someone else’s team. In 1951 he split from the Presbyterian Church of Ireland to form the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster. Entering politics, two decades later he formed the Democratic Unionist Party, splitting with the official Unionists.

So could Paisley, latterly Baron Bannside on his elevation to the House of Lords, ever have dared dream that one day the party he founded would not only decimate the official Unionists which he left (last Thursday they lost all their Parliamentary seats) but achieve a decisive role in Westminster? The Conservatives under Theresa May cannot command a majority without help from the DUP, and meetings are underway in Belfast to try to hammer out an agreement.

In his later years, a much-mellowed Paisley worked alongside his erstwhile archenemy Jerry Adams, founder of Sinn Fein. Together they shaped a power-sharing arrangement that brought relative peace to Northern Ireland. Currently negotiations about the power-sharing agreement between Sinn Fein and the DUP are deadlocked.

A changed role for the DUP in Westminster is not without risks for the fragile political balance it depends upon. A formal deal at Westminster with the DUP could weaken the government’s hand. Trust between the parties in Northern Ireland, according to informed sources, depends on a clear distance between those in power at Westminster and parties in the province. Closer links between the DUP and the U.K. government would be suspect to the Roman Catholics of Northern Ireland.

That is not the only complication that the DUP represents. It is socially conservative, for example, with a distaste for teaching evolution in state schools, and opposed to same-sex unions and relaxation of abortion laws. All this has prompted some Conservatives to express worries that the DUP may impose conditions on its cooperation to gain influence on key votes in Parliament.

This has been a chastening few days for Theresa May and her Conservative Party. She called an early election in hope of increasing her parliamentary majority, thereby strengthening her hand in negotiations over Britain’s exit from the European Union. Conservative seats went from 331 to 318.

John Martin

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