The Mess in Northern Irish Politics Shows Where Far-Right Rhetoric Gets You
Ian Paisley Jr's cringing apology for breaking "paid advocacy" rules was no surprise to anyone familiar with the toxic politics of the DUP.
Ian Paisley Jr. (Stephen Barnes/Politics / Alamy Stock Photo)
It has been an uncomfortable summer in Northern Ireland. Much like the roads of South Antrim, pasty descendants of Celts, Normans and Anglos began to melt when temperatures hit 30ºC. Those of us pursuing further torture took our heads out of freezers for long enough to see Ian Paisley Jr – Democratic Unionist Party MP – stumble his way towards tears as he apologised to the Parliament. This followed the recommendation that he be suspended for 30 days over his failure to declare two family holidays that had been paid for by the Sri Lankan government.
Paisley's suspension – the longest from Parliament since 2003 – came after the Parliamentary committee on standards ruled that he had broken the rules on "paid advocacy" by taking the holidays before lobbying against a UN resolution calling for an investigation into Sri Lankan war crimes committed against the Tamil people. Paisley has apologised for what he said was his "unintentional failure" to register the hospitality, which he estimated was worth £50,000.
Paisley did that lobbying, writing to then-Prime Minister David Cameron, to ask him to oppose the resolution; he ultimately failed. If members of the DUP are capable of feeling embarrassment, Paisley's waterworks were a humiliating climb down for someone who threatened the Daily Telegraph with legal action when they reported the holidays in September of 2017. When he eventually referred himself to the parliamentary standards watchdog, Paisley claimed that he didn’t remember taking four helicopter trips during the holidays.
Paisley's landmark summer continued when a recall petition against him, the first of its kind since such a thing became a possibility, was opened last week. It will remain open for six weeks. If 10 percent of Paisley’s North Antrim constituents – 7,543 people – sign the petition, a by-election will be triggered. The petition can be signed in three locations across the constituency – a decision that drew criticism, since the Recall of MPs Act 2015 allows for a maximum of ten – or it can also be signed by post or proxy.
The DUP suspended Paisley, pending investigation, following his suspension from Parliament, but he has said he plans to run should the by-election happen, and the organiser of a recent meeting in support of him has said that the DUP will support him. The likelihood of a by-election is high; Paisley was easily re-elected in 2017 and would most likely win a landslide again, but 19,939 constituents voted against him. Almost 7,000 of these were votes for rival unionist parties Traditional Unionist Voice and Ulster Unionist Party, but given that the leaders of both parties have been critical of Paisley – UUP leader Robin Swann, a Member of the Legislative Assembly for North Antrim, called for his resignation – it isn't a stretch to imagine some unionists signing the petition.
The sentiment in the north is that Paisley was only interested in lavish trips. Nevertheless, attempting to block an investigation is pretty consistent with the DUP's long record of both denying human rights and blocking investigations into violations of said rights. The DUP was, of course, founded by Ian Paisley Sr, a man who accounted for attacks on Catholic churches because he alleged that priests were handing out submachine guns to parishioners and coined the anti-gay slogan "Save Ulster from Sodomy". LGBTQ+ people and Catholics may be disparate from the Tamil, but it seems that the one place in which the DUP believes in equality is an across the board oppression of any and all minorities.
Last week's run-up to Belfast Pride was just another embarrassment for a party that has spent a summer tripping over mouths that can't seem to close. MLA for South Down Jim Wells referred to a Pride event held at Stormont as "an utter disgrace" and then doubled down by saying that he would "rather walk up the [notoriously republican] Falls Road in a Rangers shirt" than take part in such an event, although walking up the Falls while being Jim Wells would surely be sufficiently dangerous. Former First Minister Arlene Foster decided to get in on the act by calling a council decision to fly the Pride flag a republican "ruse" to take down the Union Jack.
At a time when people in England are rightfully worrying about the normalisation of far-right rhetoric, one only has to look to Northern Ireland to see where that takes you. If, as Jean Baudrillard said, power is founded largely on disgust, then unionist power was built on disgust at the idea of ethnic Britons being governed by anyone other than Britain; the creation of Northern Ireland consolidated that power.
When your starting point is solipsistic British nationalism entrenched into the northwest corner of a tiny island, it makes sense that the largest political party would dig right in and post a score sheet of unabashed homophobia, anti-Semitism, a complete disregard for human rights, jingoism – see recent calls for an amnesty for British soldiers found guilty of murdering civilians during the Troubles – and Sammy Wilson MP appearing to agree with a member of the public who said we need to "get the ethnics out". (Wilson insists he did not agree with that comment.)
Fascists like Britain First and Combat 18 have made moves in Northern Ireland because they recognised that the idea of white British Protestant supremacy has significant support here. When the then-First Minister is proclaiming that he doesn't trust Muslims, Paul Golding's ilk are no shock to the system. This isn't a try-hard like Tommy Robinson doing everything he can to squirrel his way into the mainstream media; this is a party and ideology historically created by British actions in Ireland and contemporarily re-endorsed by the Tory government's pact with the DUP. If the people of Britain want to know where they’ll end up if the media keep treating racists like Boris Johnson with kid gloves, all they have to do is look over the Irish Sea, or into the weeping face of Ian Paisley’s son, to see the monster Britain created.