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The DUP: Shuffling grumpily into that political goodnight?

The lead story in The Irish Times of 11 November 1982 was about developments in the campaign for the general election in Ireland two weeks later. Facing into their third successive close contest in 18 months, the leaders of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, Charles Haughey and Garrett Fitzgerald, were hammering away at each other.

But three items of international news made it to the front page. One was about an application to the Vatican by Princess Caroline of Monaco for an annulment of her marriage to Phillipe Junot, from whom she had already obtained a civil divorce. Another was news from Britain of the sentencing to 35 years imprisonment of Geoffrey Prime for being a Soviet spy. Prime was employed at GCHQ in Cheltenham and spice was added to the report of the brief trial, conducted mainly behind closed doors, by the revelation that his spying was, according to the newspaper, “discovered through sexual offences with minors” — in respect of which he was also sentenced to imprisonment.

Police searched his home and found a list of 2,287 little girls (sic.) — and a large amount of spying equipment.

The third story also related to the Soviet Union.

Rumours swept Moscow last night that a senior Soviet politician had died, after television schedules were changed without explanation and television news readers appeared dressed in black.

Speculation on the identity of the possibly deceased centred on Andrei Kirilenko, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and “chief lieutenant” to the party’s General Secretary and the country’s President, Leonid Brezhnev. The 76-year old Kirilenko had been previously reported to be seriously ill. However,

Some sources reported that President Brezhnev himself had died. Officials would not comment on either rumour.

The following day’s newspaper offered as its lead story the confirmation that it was indeed Brezhnev who had died (Kirilenko survived until 1990). No cause of death was specified, though the newspaper reported that Brezhnev had been ill periodically since 1975 and that his death “had been received calmly”. The newspaper also reported the leading candidates for the succession as Konstantin Chernenko (71), “Mr. Brezhnev’s own chosen heir apparent”, and Yuri Andropov (68), the former head of the KGB. Curiously the story, based on reporting from The Financial Times and the Soviet news agency, TASS, omits Mr. Brezhnev’s own age (76) though mentioning that of his wife, Victoria (74).

Mr. Brezhnev was only the third undisputed leader of the Soviet Union during the six decades from 1922 when Josef Stalin assumed effective leadership from the ailing Vladimir Lenin who died two years later. Stalin ruled until his death in 1953, to be succeeded by Nikita Khruschev who remained in charge until effectively ousted by Brezhnev in 1964. I am passing over Georgy Malenkov’s 9-days of supremacy after Stalin’s death, before he was reined in by the Politburo.

But the pace of leadership change certainly picked up after Brezhnev’s death in 1982. Within a decade, the Communist party had worked its way through no less than three more and the Soviet Union itself had collapsed altogether.

First, Yuri Andropov beat out Konstantin Chernenko to succeed Brezhnev, only for Andropov himself to give way to Chernenko by dying 15 months after taking office. Chernenko himself lasted only 13 months before also dying and being succeeded by the comparatively sprightly 54-years old Mikhail Sergeyevitch Gorbachev.

Gorbachev’s keynote policy of Glasnost drew back the curtains (a bit) and exposed the sclerotic institutions and activities of the Soviet Union to the sunlight of more openness, transparency and scrutiny, sufficient to reveal thick layers of grease and grime on the country’s political and economic fabric, quickly triggering the relinquishing by the Soviet Union of its effective control of the Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union’s own collapse and Gorbachev’s personal downfall by 1991.

Of course, we learnt later what was never revealed at the time that Brezhnev suffered his first stroke in 1973, his first heart attack in 1975, various long term respiratory ailments exacerbated by decades of heavy smoking and that the country was effectively governed by an informal sub-committee of Politburo heavyweights for the last two years of his life. Andropov suffered kidney failure four months after taking office and spent the last six months of his reign and his life in hospital. Chernenko was already terminally ill when he took over from Andropov.

But the overriding need to project an appearance of controlled authority, stability, continuity and progress domestically and to protect the image of the Soviet Union as the leadership counterparty to the US in a bi-polar world abroad (and, indeed, at home) — even as their world was collapsing under their feet — necessitated a culture of secrecy and denial. There is never anything strange to see here.

But back to November 1982. On the same day, it reported confirmation of Brezhnev’s demise, The Irish Times also reported on the first day’s proceedings of the “new” Northern Ireland Assembly, a product of yet another attempt to resuscitate devolved government there, eight years after the collapse of the Sunningdale power sharing arrangements. This one petered out in 1986, having met infrequently and achieved very little, hamstrung from the start by the abstention of both nationalist parties, the SDLP and Sinn Féin.

Above its report, the newspaper carried a photograph of three leading members of the DUP smiling upwards towards the camera from their front bench in Stormont. One was Ian Paisley, then 56, who founded the party in 1971 and led it from then until 2008. The second was Peter Robinson, then a youthful 29 year-old, already installed two years previously as the party’s deputy leader, though he would have to wait another 26 years to rise one rung higher. And the third was Jim Allister, almost as youthful at 31, but who would have to wait 25 years before establishing himself as a serious thorn in the party’s side when he split with it in 2007 because of its decision to enter government with Sinn Féin — since when he has been gnawing away at its support from the right.

Peter Robinson’s eventual leadership tenure was eight years, that of his successor, Arlene Foster, five years. Now, having ditched Ms. Foster, the party faces a choice between two grey, granite-faced gentlemen on the elderly side of middle age; Jeffrey Donaldson (58) and Edwin Poots (55). For the purposes of this “election”, the term “party” means only its representatives elected to the Stormont Assembly (28) and Westminster (8), an electorate of 36 altogether.

The leadership election takes place in two days’ time, on 14 May. On Thursday last, the Belfast based newspaper, News Letter, reported that the party had placed gagging orders on both candidates, banning them from discussing the leadership contest publicly.

According to the newspaper, this directive from the party’s officers emerged publicly as Mr. Poots issued a manifesto for the party “…which called for radical reform — and specifically pledges to end the party’s culture of secrecy”.

When asked why the candidates were banned from doing interviews, the [DUP] press office said in a statement: “The party officers have taken decisions as to the processes for the election campaign, including the fact that candidates will not be fielded by the party for media opportunities during this time.

Candidates, rather than the apparatus of the party, will continue to promote themselves to the electoral college at this time.”

The directive also imposed strictures on “other party representatives”. According to News Letter, they:

…can speak to the media “but will be advised not to enter into commentary before a preferred candidate or campaign” and will be reminded that a contest is primarily for internal party purposes”.

One has to wonder if the candidates themselves consented cheerfully to this embargo, possibly even encouraged it. Neither suffers from a surplus of charisma. But the party seems more at ease with the cosier prospect of another Brezhnev/Andropov/Chernenko rather than the riskier one of a Gorbachev, if there is such within the ranks of the DUP. After all, even if the former trio maintained their country’s stately, steady course towards a brick wall, at least it was a sedate progress. Gorbachev seemed to think he could drive through the wall if he pressed the accelerator hard enough.

Just like the ancien regime of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Democratic Unionist Party is obsessed with projecting itself as being like a swan progressing apparently effortlessly and without a ripple along the water towards an unspecified destination but which looks ever more like the rocks of irrelevance and extinction, looking inward rather than outward, all the time drifting further and further away from the new realities, agendas and multiple, complex identities and aspirations that make up contemporary Northern Ireland itself and its relations with the Republic, Britain and, indeed, Europe. It is clinging to the wreckage of an evaporating past, resisting rather than embracing the opportunity to positively influence the shape of the emerging future.



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Daire O'Criodain

Daire O'Criodain


Former diplomat and aviation finance executive, active now mainly in not-for-profit sector. Living in rural Clare. Weekly posts on Wednesdays.