Ian Paisley dominated unionist politics in Northern Ireland for 40 years. Now, his son is seeking to protect the family legacy in an electoral litmus test for the province’s peace process.
Ian Paisley junior, 41, faces Jim Allister in the pro-British heartland of North Antrim in today’s vote. Paisley senior spent more than three decades attacking rivals who tried to forge a settlement with nationalists who want to unite Ireland. He then entered government in 2007 with Irish Republican Army allies Sinn Fein, a move opposed by Allister.
“This is going to tell us how big the appetite for that brand of unionism is,” said Paul Arthur, a politics lecturer at the University of Ulster in Belfast. Allister, 57, offers “a totally uncompromising view of unionism.”
In what might ordinarily have been a sideshow in U.K. political terms, lawmakers from Northern Ireland, as well as nationalists in Scotland and Wales, may end up wielding more power after the tightest election since 1974.
David Cameron’s Conservatives may need the support of smaller parties to govern as polls show he is unlikely to emerge with a majority in London’s Westminster Parliament.
Cameron campaigned in Northern Ireland this week after forging an alliance between his party and the Ulster Unionist Party, another mainly Protestant, pro-U.K. political group. Paisley belongs to the Democratic Unionist Party, which was founded by his father, a Presbyterian minister, in 1971.
“This election represents an opportunity to participate in the mainstream of British politics,” Cameron said in a speech in Belfast on May 4 during his campaign.
Peter Robinson, leader of the DUP, said Cameron will return to Northern Ireland to seek his support, the Belfast Telegraph reported yesterday. Robinson succeeded Paisley two years ago.
Paisley senior was nicknamed “Dr. No” as he refused for decades to back power-sharing with the mainly Catholic nationalists. Now, Allister opposes Sinn Fein’s current prominence.
“Success for Allister would send a significant number of the DUP into their bunkers,” said Arthur. “Allister is taking up the position that Paisley held for years.”
Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice party is campaigning against Sinn Fein’s role in the assembly in Belfast that was revived in 2007 in an effort to stabilize the region, which remained part of the U.K. after Irish independence in 1922. Some 3,500 people died in the three-decade-long conflict that largely ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
“Jim Allister has no solution,” Paisley said in an interview. “He wants to destroy the assembly. He only has a wrecking agenda.”
Allister faces a battle to overturn the 17,965 majority in Westminster that Paisley’s son has inherited from his father. Still, a strong showing in the vote today may provide his party with a platform to take as many as 15 seats in the 108-seat assembly next year, he said.
“I would not be in government with Sinn Fein under any circumstances,” Allister said in an interview. “I don’t trust them.”