So Dr No has finally said "Yes". Most of the commentary on his new position has been fairly positive (and here), and has interpreted his change of mind as a mark of generosity of spirit. Others, however, have been less uncritical.
Dean Godson, biographer of David Trimble, in an article in The Times asked; "So, Dr No, what exactly were the last 40 years all about?", and came to the conclusion that Paisley's motivation was mainly to do with getting his hands on power, and becoming "top dog", while ignoring the "project of creeping condominium with the Republic" that Godson believes faceless bureaucrats are pushing through.
Godson may, of course, be completely wrong about Paisley. And his question may be back-to-front: perhaps the last 40 years are what has brought Paisley to the position he is in now.
Consider the world Paisley lived in 40 years ago. It was one in which the unionist hegemony in Northern Ireland was as yet unchallenged; in which it seemed that the main opposition to unionism in the Stormont Parliament would come from the Northern Ireland Labour Party. Nationalists were divided, marginal and powerless. The Unionist proportion of the vote was over 66%, and in reality much higher as many unionist seats were unopposed (and thus their votes uncounted). Project Ulster appeared to have worked; the Protestant People had their Protestant Parliament, their Protestant police force, their hands on all of the levers of power. The south was a poor and agricultural country, haemorrhaging its youth through the emigrant boats, and could offer no alternative pole of attraction for the demoralised nationalists of the north.
Project Ulster was at its zenith – many of its people had fought in the Second World War, and still felt the glow of pride that that common endeavour had given them. The economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s had given middle-class Protestants a quality of life that they saw as vindication of their union with Britain. Unionists and Protestants were numerically superior to all others, and saw no reason for this to change. This was the world in which Paisley, and many others, grew up and absorbed their political and religious values.
Out of view, however, dissent was growing. What precisely led to the outburst that became a war, and then a peace process, is open to debate. But during the 40 years of that transition from uneasy peace back to uneasy peace, many things have changed. While Paisley's position at the end of the 40 years is completely different to his position before, and during, those long years, the reason could be that he has recognised the changes, and their significance.
Consider the following:
- In the 1969 Stormont election, Unionists won over 66% of the vote. In the 2007 Stormont election they won 48.7%.
- In 1961 the Census recorded that 34.9% of the population was Catholic. In 2001, the Census recorded that 43.8% of the population was Catholic (by community background).
- In the 1960s a majority of school-children were Protestant. In 2007 the majority is Catholic – Protestants make up barely 40% of primary school children.
- In the 1960s Northern Ireland's university students were mainly Protestant. In 2007 a majority of students in both QUB and the UU are Catholic.
- In the 1967 59.9% of marriages took place in Protestant churches. In 2005 barely 35% of marriages took place in Protestant churches.
- In the 1960s the south was poor. In 2007 it is one of the world's richest countries.
- In the 1960s the south had high rates of tax. In 2007 one of unionisms main demands is a cut in corporation tax in Northern Ireland to bring it into line with the low rate in the south.
- In the 1960s the British government allowed the unionists a free hand with their Project Ulster, and ignored any approaches from the south concerning the north. By 2007 the British government had removed most of unionism's power, and was running the north almost in cooperation with Dublin.
- In the 1960s Paisley started a riot in order to remove one Irish flag in a shop window in a nationalist area. In 2007 he has agreed to share power with Sinn Féin in an arrangement that guarantees: the right of free political thought; the right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations; the right to seek constitutional change by peaceful and legitimate means; and the right to freedom from sectarian harassment.
Paisley, I believe, has had his 'road to Damascus' moment. Not quite a conversion, I accept, but certainly an opening of the eyes. He has fought a tough fight, played dirty, used every trick, every insult, and every sneer he could think of. But ultimately, cold facts have shown him that his position was untenable. In our modern democratic world it is numbers and votes that count, and that has turned out to be Project Ulster's Achilles Heel. The sneer of the Protestant, that the Catholic breeds like a rabbit, has turned out to be, ironically, true. Through consistently higher birth-rates, the Catholic population of Northern Ireland is going to exceed the Protestant population sometime during the next generation. This fact is evident from a wide variety of sources; the Census, marriage records, birth rates, the Schools Census, election results, etc. Every party in Northern Ireland has its number-crunchers, even the DUP, and they are all telling their bosses the same thing. It seems to have finally sunk in.
Maybe Paisley has simply, and finally, accepted that Project Ulster is dead, and decided to dump it and move to his own Plan B: Project Northern Ireland. By continuing to push for a repressive and exclusive 'Ulster' he was risking everything, and ensuring that tomorrow's nationalist majority would unceremoniously dump it. But by tactically switching to an inclusive and 'softer' Project Northern Ireland, he is hoping to save at least the core of the project, the union with Britain.