Category: Archive

A View North A Paisleyite at home in Irish N.Y.’s bosom

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

Gregory Campbell, wearing an open-necked shirt and slacks, did not look uncomfortable sitting surrounded by all the Irish paraphernalia in Kennedy’s Bar and Restaurant on West 57th Street in New York City. There was only a week to go to St. Patrick’s Day, so the decorations around the walls of what is one of New York’s most famous Irish American bars were even greener than usual, if that were possible. But Campbell, one of the most prominent members of the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, seemed very much at home.

That might seem surprising to those who would have imagined that the sight of a Paisley-ite in an Irish-American bar is as rare as the sight of a Free Presbyterian at Mass. But as the minister of regional development in the executive government of the Northern Ireland assembly, Campbell has been to places where DUP members and Free Presbyterians are not normally found, including the Markets area of Belfast. He explained with a smile how in his first day of office, Belfast suffered a deluge (pardon the Biblical language) which flooded whole areas. One of the worst affected was the Markets, which once sheltered the gunmen of the Official IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army and produced such enemies of the state as Joe McCann. To add a further complication, the Apprentice Boys had put in an application to parade through the area within weeks, and, of course, the Derry-born Campbell is one of their most ardent supporters. Still, Campbell got on his water boots and waded right in. He recounts that he had no problems during his visit to help sort out the flood.

"There was no political fallout," he said sipping from a huge glass of Coca Cola. That was thanks to Sinn Fein, he explained, who did not want to make an issue of his visit.

Campbell was in the U.S. on a six-day trip trying to learn how regional authorities here manage to raise private money for public works, such as waterways and sewage systems, the failure of which was the cause of the Belfast inundation last July.

"We need about £100 million to replace Belfast’s sewage pipes," explained the minister. "They are 150 years old." The money is not coming from the public purse, so the minister is finding out how the authorities in such cities as New York, Boston, Baltimore and Washington deal with the same or similar problems of raising private funds for public works.

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Another seeming contradiction in all of this, it was pointed out, is the very fact that Campbell is a government minister in the first place. After all, has not the DUP campaigned vigorously against the Good Friday agreement that created the government in which Mr. Campbell serves? Campbell shrugged that one off easily.

He said that the DUP "had always been a devolutionist party." The party was, therefore, not opposed to the assembly, just to the agreement itself. This is because the agreement is seen as "a vehicle for a United Ireland," he said. The DUP is convinced that the whole process is really about "getting Unionists to become involved in being nudged into a United Ireland." That is why, he asserts, the entire agreement is tilted in favor of nationalists. He said it is an attempt "to make a United Ireland seem inevitable."

Campbell is convinced that after the next British general election (predicted for early May), the anti-agreement Unionists will be in such a strong position that the British will be forced to scrap the Good Friday agreement and negotiate another, more in keeping with DUP aspirations. According to Campbell, this will mean, among other things, scrapping the current North-South bodies and replacing them with bodies based on "cooperation," and getting rid of the Police Bill. But, it was pointed out, that these were among the very things which won support for the agreement from nationalists. However, the problem, as Campbell sees it, is that Protestants need an agreement "where we can convince the other community that their fate is better served in the United Kingdom" instead of one, which he repeated, makes it look like there is a "single, inevitable outcome."

Campbell was asked how his party could persuade Catholics to go along with this, given the fact that it is associated with the Free Presbyterian Church, notorious for its anti-Catholic rhetoric?

"There are no links between the DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church," he said, pointing out that some of the most prominent members of the party, such as Peter Robinson and Sammy Wilson, are not members of Paisley’s church.

"More Methodists vote for me than Free Presbyterians," he said. "I got 9,500 votes in 1997 in a constituency where there are only 300 Free Presbyterians."

Campbell himself is a Free Presbyterian. He agreed that given the attitude of his church to the Catholic Church, i.e. that it is the anti-Christ, there was really little hope that he might one day win any support from Catholics no matter what he says about the Good Friday agreement.

However, Campbell was concerned with more practical matters than contentious interpretations of the Book of Revelations, Chapter 17: sewage, waterways, and railways, which whether you are a Catholic or a Free Presbyterian are equally important to your comfort and convenience. One of the first things he did in office, he said, was scrap a British-inspired plan to eradicate almost the entire railway system in Northern Ireland, leaving only the Belfast-Dublin link. He is legislating for free public transportation for women over 60 and men over 65.

Campbell sees the assembly surviving, with the DUP still in government. As someone who once argued for a "shoot-to-kill" policy against terrorists, how did he feel about sharing power with Martin McGuinness, ex-chief of staff of the Provisionals?

"It makes me agitated," he confessed. However, he added: "I’m prepared to see what they [the IRA] mean by this ‘transformation.’ They have to prove it."

He said he likes visiting the U.S. and only regrets that on this trip he won’t be able to get to Knoxville, Tenn., a place with great significance for him. It was there, he explained, in 1996 he discovered a monument to the grandparents of Davy Crockett, who came from County Tyrone.

"It was a very emotional experience for me," he said. "They were defenders of Derry in 1690."

No one should be surprised then that Davy Crockett refused to surrender at the Alamo. If only the poor Mexicans had known what they were up against.

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