By John Coulter, Irish political journalist
THE starting gun on the most important realignment in Irish unionism for 40 years was fired when First Minister Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party failed to romp home in a council by-election in one of the North’s safest Paisleyite constituencies.
The Paisley camp is now starting to suffer the Unionist backlash from the DUP’s decision to enter a power-sharing, legislative Executive with Sinn Fein, the Provisional IRA’s political wing, less than a year ago.
Unionists opposed to power-sharing have branded Paisley and the deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator Martin McGuinness, the Chuckle Brothers after the children’s television characters.
The DUP’s main rivals, the Ulster Unionists, took the seat in the staunchly Unionist Dromore area of Banbridge District Council, – a part of Lagan Valley DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson’s Westminster stomping ground, and one of the safest of the DUP’s nine Commons seats.
While the Paisley camp topped the poll on the first count, the UUP won on transfers from other parties.
But the real shock for DUP boss Ian Paisley was the surprise showing by dissident unionists from the newly-formed, right-wing Traditional Unionist Voice movement.
The DUP had been expecting to wipe out the anti-power sharing TUV, formed earlier this year by former DUP MEP Jim Allister.
But the Dromore result, even though it is only based on a 40 per cent turnout, clearly emphasises that Unionism is now a three-party set-up involving the DUP, UUP and TUV.
The TUV candidate polled more than 700 first preference votes, around 300 behind the Paisley camp.
A clear Paisleyite victory would have been to have snatched the seat from the UUP on count one, with TUV scraping only about 200 votes.
The UUP Dromore victory also shows that Reg Empey’s party electoral meltdown, which it suffered in last year’s Assembly poll, has bottomed out.
If the TUV result is repeated in next year’s expected Westminster General Election and the European Parliamentary poll, it could see the DUP fail to capture its Euro seat back from Allister.
This could also see DUP majorities in safe Paisleyite seats, such as Donaldson’s Lagan Valley, reduced to a few thousand votes rather than tens of thousands.
The TUV showing is the most significant electoral change in unionism since Ian Paisley senior almost toppled the then Northern Premier Terence O’Neill in Bannside in the 1969 Stormont General Election.
It is expected the main TUV target will be DUP Gospel singing Free Presbyterian cleric Willie McCrea’s South Antrim Commons seat.
TUV intervention in other constituencies could see some of the nine DUP seats return to the UUP fold.
High on the UUP’s target list would be Upper Bann, currently held by another DUP Gospel singer David Simpson.
In the 2005 Westminster poll, Simpson defeated UUP boss and Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble, leading to Trimble quitting the UUP leadership.
First Minister Paisley senior, who turns 81 later this year, has also indicated he intends to defend his Commons seat at the next General Election, and the TUV will be hoping to dent his massive majority. Paisley has held the seat since 1970.
The real worry for unionism is if a three-way split sees previously safe unionist seats falling to nationalists and republicans.
This could speed up plans to merge the DUP and UUP, both of whom support the power sharing Stormont Executive.
However, many grassroots unionists privately believe this will not be achieved while Paisley senior runs the DUP and is First Minister.
The Dromore defeat could see another campaign being launched to persuade Paisley senior to step down from both posts in favour of current Stormont finance minister and DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson.
Last month, Paisley was forced to quit as Moderator of his fundamentalist Christian Free Presbyterian Church to avoid a bitter split in the sect.
Paisley senior had been Moderator, or leader, of the sect since he formed it in 1951.
He faced a coup from clerics in the sect opposed to his sharing power with Sinn Fein.
Paisley’s resignation as Free Church moderator proves that he is vulnerable to coups.
It is understood there are plans being hatched within his party to persuade him to stand down as First Minister, DUP leader, Westminster MP, and North Antrim Assembly member.
The Unionist grassroots opposition to Paisley has been fuelled by the speed with which the hellfire preacher has embraced power-sharing with Sinn Fein.
In July 2006, Paisley was claiming power sharing with republicans would be ‘over his dead body’, but less than a year later he had formed the Stormont Executive with Sinn Fein as his government partners.
Paisley working with Sinn Fein in the North is in stark contrast to the voting patterns in the Republic of Ireland where Sinn Fein lost seats in the Dail, or Dublin Parliament, in last year’s Southern Irish General Election.