Paisley

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Ed Moloney, Poolberg Press, £13.99

This book is the one of the best places to start when it comes to an assessment of the role in the Northern Ireland peace process of both Ian Paisley and his former deputy, Peter Robinson - who has just replaced Paisley as first minister.

Ed Moloney is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable commentators on the Troubles. His previous book, A Secret History of the IRA, is probably the best account of how the Provisionals' leaders came to realise that the armed struggle could not win and embarked on a journey that would take them into a power-sharing executive.

In many ways the current book is a companion to that work, albeit a minor one. It is an attempt to understand why Paisley, the most intransigent of unionist leaders, ended up in government with Sinn Fein. It's an important question, and for the most part Moloney succeeds in providing an answer. His main conclusion is that Paisley went into government with Sinn Fein "because he could, and because the Provos made it possible."

This seems to me to be perfectly correct. The irony is that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) became the dominant Unionist party by bitterly criticising other Unionists' involvement in this "peace process". But as Moloney shows, this was a deliberate strategy, crafted by Peter Robinson in particular, to supplant the marginally more moderate Official Unionist Party as the major Unionist political force. In this at least, it was successful, and Moloney's book is at its best when showing how this was achieved.

However, the book is perhaps weaker on the broader political relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Moloney argues that politics in the North has long been characterised by a kind of symbiosis between Sinn Fein's "radical" (armed) Republicanism and the brand of extreme Unionism represented by Paisley. The argument is too simplistic. As Moloney recognises, the Provos were created out of a need to defend Catholic communities against Loyalist attacks, and moved on to assault the state they saw as the source of genuine nationalist grievances. Paisley played a key role in this, and Moloney highlights it very well.

But he stretches the argument too far when he suggests that, if Paisley had not played this role, the extremely modest proposals for reform tabled by supposedly more "moderate" Unionists like Terence O'Neill in the late 1960s might have won over the majority of Nationalists, and four decades of bloodshed could have been avoided.

A lot of this is wishful thinking and glosses over the nature of the state the DUP is pledged to defend.

Paisley may now have departed the scene but, for his successors, power sharing is the best way, for the moment, of maintaining the Northern state. The tragedy is that Sinn Fein has failed to develop policies that would undermine the Unionists' base in working class areas, and so cannot easily provide an alternative. Indeed, its agreement with the DUP on large areas of policy, from corporation tax to privatisation, is a key explanation for the apparent ease with which it is able to govern jointly with them.

Northern Ireland needs a politics that breaks out of the twin ghettoes of Republicanism and Unionism, and speaks to its citizens on the basis of what they have in common, both with each other and with their working class brothers and sisters in the rest of Ireland.