‘Smash Sinn Fein’ election approach was a failure: Paisley

Rev Ian Paisley before the local council elections in 1985
Rev Ian Paisley before the local council elections in 1985

Ian Paisley has indicated the DUP’s anti-Sinn Fein tone in the run-up to the recent election contributed to the bad outcome for unionism, likening them to his own father’s hardline “Smash Sinn Fein” campaign of the 1980s.

Mr Paisley, DUP MP for North Antrim, was quoted making the remarks in an interview with left-leaning London-based magazine the New Statesman, published on the internet on Friday.

Rev Paisley with son Ian in 2010

Rev Paisley with son Ian in 2010

In it, he said unionists had been “caught napping” by the snap election, and dubbed its outcome (which left the DUP a mere one seat ahead of Sinn Fein) the “most serious and precarious position unionism has been in since the 1980s”.

Mr Paisley suggested that the DUP’s election strategy of attacking Sinn Fein had backfired by mobilising large numbers of republican voters.

He was quoted as saying that “the reason that we never re-ran the smash Sinn Fein campaign from the 1980s is because that campaign didn’t work, and this was almost a repeat”.

He added: “That tactic of attacking Sinn Fein galvanised nationalist voters – and there was already considerable sympathy for a retiring and sickly Martin McGuinness.

“That certainly boosted the nationalist feeling that they had to ‘do this for Marty!’ sort of thing.”

The historic DUP campaign which he was referring to was deployed during the local elections of 1985 (the first council elections to be contested by Sinn Fein).

It saw Rev Ian Paisley pictured in publicity shots with a literal sledgehammer, bearing the words “Smash Sinn Fein” on its handle.

At the time, SDLP MP John Hume had told the House of Commons: “One does not need two political thoughts to rub together in one’s head to realise that that kind of approach breeds support for the people that one alleges will be smashed. Extremism breeds extremism.”

In the end, according to the Ark.ac.uk website (which compiles historic information on elections) Sinn Fein won 59 out of the 560-plus council seats available (with the SDLP taking 102 seats), whilst the UUP emerged with a convincing lead over the DUP in terms of the numbers of seats.

When Martin McGuinness announced he was quitting front line politics in January this year, Mr Paisley had delivered a remarkably warm tribute to him, crediting the Sinn Fein man with “saving lives” – a tribute which stood in contrast to the more qualified reaction of Arlene Foster.

Mr Paisley’s New Statesman interview on Friday came after he told Sky News last week that Mrs Foster “has to answer some very tough questions” in the wake of the election, and that “humble pie” needed to be eaten.

In late 2015, when she was being tipped for the leadership of the DUP, Mr Paisley was one of only two of the eight DUP MPs who did not sign her nomination papers (the other being Sammy Wilson, who was himself believed to have been considering making a bid for the leadership at the time).

In addition, the New Statesman also reported that Mr Paisley had said he has no plans to return to the Stormont Assembly.

It quoted him as saying simply: “I see my future at Westminster.”