The First Ministers’ Club: Paisley and Salmond’s emerging alliance

Some interesting nuances have emerged in Ian Paisley’s brand of unionism since he became First Minister. It appears that one of his greatest heroes was a republican, and one of his closest parliamentary allies is a staunch nationalist:

His hero is Oliver Cromwell: "When I’m in the House of Commons, I
look around the benches and think ‘Cromwell would have decapitated a
few of you boys’. He beheaded a king, so MPs would be small fry to

The politicians with whom Paisley has bonded surprise many: "I
dislike paper men – men of no opinion, men who stand for nothing. I’m
very fond of Alex Salmond (Scottish Nationalist Party leader). I’ve
invited him to Stormont. Tony Benn is my oldest friend in the Commons.
We agree on many things, but not Ireland – he’s a bit of a republican." (The Extraordinary Career of Ian Paisley, Sunday tribune via Newshound)

Ironically, the arch-unionist could turn out to be an important ally for the SNP leader:

ALEX Salmond will try to enlist the support of the Rev Ian Paisley, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, to re-establish a high-powered committee of Britain’s political leaders, chaired by the Prime Minister.

Mr Salmond will meet Mr Paisley in Belfast later this month when he travels to Northern Ireland in his first official visit as the First Minister.

Mr Salmond is keen to bring back the plenary joint ministerial committee which was set up in 1999 by the UK government to resolve disputes between the devolved administrations and Westminster.

This committee, dubbed the Council of the Nations, was an extremely powerful body, chaired by the Prime Minister and including the Deputy Prime Minister, the first ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and other senior ministers from the devolved administrations. (Scotsman)

Paisley’s comments ahead of the meeting suggest Salmond will get a sympathetic hearing:

"I was talking to him last night on the phone and he`s going to come over to Northern Ireland
and have a chat with us about things.

"There are things Wales,
Scotland and Northern Ireland have in common that if we go to the
British Government in harness, we will get more out of them." (UTV)

Give Paisley’s links with Salmond, his increasingly cordial relations with Bertie Ahern and his support for a corporation tax cut for Northern Ireland, its not surprising that some unionist hardliners have begun to accuse him of being an ‘Ulster nationalist’ rather than a unionist proper.

I suspect if David Trimble were still First Minister of Northern Ireland, he would be much more concerned to keep in line with the limits of devolution as envisaged in Whitehall and Westminster, effectively siding with Gordon Brown, rather than with Salmond. This is somewhat ironic given Trimble’s own background in the Ulster Vanguard movement, but then neither he nor Paisley have been completely consistent about their preferred constitutional scenario over the years.

As the Scottish Futures blog notes, Sinn Fein seem to have taken a back seat in the Paisley-Salmond dialogue. Nevertheless, as the late Desmond Greaves argued, anything that strengthens Stormont at the expense of Westminster is arguably in nationalist interests.

The Connolly Asssociation’s central insight was that the unionism
of most unionists was not based on love of Britain or the Crown, but on
being top-dog over nationalists and Catholics, and enjoying the small
privileges that went with that, in a northern economy that was racked
by backwardness and unemployment. Rule out such top-doggery by means
of civil rights, said the CA, and political conditions would be created
in which the rational basis for the unionism of most unionists could be
eroded in a generation.

  That was why the Association and Irish Democrat
opposed the call for the abolition of Stormont in 1971-72, for that
would remove the local northern forum in which the process of dividing
unionism and enabling some unionists to discover their Irishness could
work itself out. (Irish Democrat)


While this may be an overly-materialist analysis, there are tantalising signs in the DUP’s more robust approach to Westminster that it may yet be vindicated.

Does it make sense for an avowedly unionist party pursue this quasi-nationalist approach? Arguably, yes.

David Trimble favoured devolution partly to keep Northern Ireland in line with New Labour’s constitutional settlement in Britain. The DUP’s stance is also in line with developments in Britain, developments that have seen devolution slip the bounds that New Labour set for it.

Ironically, the situation that has created a new confrontation between unionism and nationalism in Britain, may provide the space for a new accommodation in Ireland.



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