When the Good Friday Agreement was signed nearly nine years ago, Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party was the only large political party in Northern Ireland to oppose it. A major landmark in the province’s peace process, the Agreement set the scene for a power-sharing government.
It came after three decades of civil unrest known as the “Troubles” sparked by the nationalist civil rights movement of the 1960s. Initially peaceful, the movement was soon plagued by violence, characterised by the armed campaigns of paramilitary groups on both sides. The British Army and the police were also involved.
As always, Ian Paisley’s message was clear: “And I say tonight: if the government are not going to govern, let them get out!” In 1973, an attempt was made to put an end to the violence with the Sunningdale Agreement. It would have given the province greater autonomy with its own assembly and power-sharing executive.
But facing opposition from both sides, the deal collapsed a year later. Twelve years on, opposition again from both sides -this time, to the Hillsborough accord which planned to give the Republic of Ireland an advisory role in Northern Ireland’s government.
Leading the Unionists refusing to share power with their Republican rivals was Reverend Ian Paisley: “We are part of the Great British family and neither Dublin nor the IRA will stop us”
Rejected by the Republicans because it confirmed Northern Ireland’s status as a part of the UK, the Anglo-Irish Agreement was also opposed by the Unionists because of the role it gave the Republic of Ireland in the governance of the North. Paisley, along with other Unionists, had to be forcefully removed from the assembly building.
How long this latest attempt at power-sharing will last only time will tell. Paisley had long maintained that Sinn Fein would only come to power over his dead body, and his willingness to even give power-sharing a try comes as a surprise to many.