Ian Paisley jnr: ‘Trump would be very welcome in the North’
The DUP MP on his party’s new-found access to the centres of power in Washington
DUP MP Ian Paisley jnr and PSNI chief constable George Hamilton attend the American Ireland Gala Fund dinner at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
New York mayor Bill de Blasio may have named St Patrick’s Day “Gerry Adams’ Day” this weekend, but behind the scenes it was the DUP who were making waves in Washington during the St Patrick’s Day celebrations.
This year, among the sea of green and bowls of shamrock, members of the DUP were a quiet presence in Washington, gaining access to centres of power that were off limits to others.
On Thursday, after the shamrock ceremony in the White House a DUP delegation was among the attendees at a private party thrown by House Speaker Paul Ryan. They also held meetings with Mike Pence, the vice-president and prominent evangelical Christian.
Chief among them was Ian Paisley jnr, MP for North Antrim and son of DUP founder Ian Paisley.
“I think the tide is turning in terms of unionists in America,” he tells me as he stands below an Andy Warhol portrait of Queen Elizabeth in the British embassy in Washington.
“Unionists are now very comfortable in their skin coming out here, talking to the Irish American caucus and explaining to them that actually there is another case here, a legitimate case. There is finally a realisation that it’s not just all a green agenda.”
“Frankly there is now a better understanding of the nuances, of the other side. Who would have thought that Peter King would have mentioned Ian Paisley, mentioned me in his speech?” he says of the New York congressman, a long-time Sinn Féin supporter, who spoke about the peace process during the annual Ireland Funds St Patrick’s Day gala on Wednesday night.
Among the DUP delegation in town this week were MLAs Edwin Poots, Paul Givan and Jonathan Buckley. But much of the DUP’s new-found access in Washington is down to Ian Paisley jnr and his early support for the Trump administration.
He says the election of Donald Trump has been a “game-changer” for the unionist voice in Washington.
Trump’s connection with the Paisleys stretches back more than 10 years, when the businessman was looking at investing in a project in Northern Ireland. Paisley jnr and his father directly contacted Trump, continuing this engagement through the years.
“I got to know him in 2006, kept in regular contact with him and his family, including during the election campaign, so when he won the race, that gave me a little bit of an edge over others. I’m certainly willing to use that to my advantage for my constituency and my community.”
Paisley was invited to the private reception with the Trump and Pence families along with the Taoiseach in the White House after Thursday’s ceremony.
Paisley, as well as other senior members of the DUP, has also built up strong links with the vice-president. An evangelical Christian who grew up in an Irish-American Catholic family in Indiana but converted from Catholicism as an adult, Mike Pence has been a powerful voice for the religious right in the Trump administration. He has helped drive through conservative measures, from restrictions on abortion laws to Trump’s signing of an executive order on religious liberty.
Paisley first met the vice-president a year and a half ago. Their connection has developed through a personal contact. Performers who are personal friends of the Paisleys have performed in Pence’s own home on several occasions.
Paisley says he had a “very, very good conversation” with Mike Pence this week. “It was very beneficial for him to recognise the nuance about Northern Ireland.”
As for Trump, Ian Paisley’s next focus is on a possible visit to Ireland by the 45th president of the United States.
“If he has an opportunity to visit we want to make sure he visits Northern Ireland. He would be very welcome.”
Noting his interest in golf and golf tourism he says: “We have the Irish Open this year, we have the British Open next year. There are opportunities that he is aware of and which I’ve written to him about,” he says. “He would be very welcome.”