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Dawson's Legacy

The tragic death of MLA George Dawson has left First Minister Ian Paisley without one of his most loyal followers. Radical Unionist commentator Dr John Coulter assesses what the legacy to the late DUP man should be.

Dr John Coulter • 14 May 2007

East Antrim DUP Assemblyman George Dawson, who died the day before the Northern Executive received back devolved powers, was a political lynchpin at keeping the lid firmly on Protestant fundamentalist opposition to party boss and First Minister Ian Paisley Senior.

Although the power-sharing Executive is up and running, the Unionist rumour mill is churning out allegations a new anti-DUP Right-wing Unionist movement is about to emerge.

In this respect, the 45-year-old Dawson played a key role in dealing with grassroots fundamentalist opposition to the DUP entering the Executive. He had also been a sure bet as a future DUP Minister or Junior Minister.

With the influential Dawson out of the political arena, there is a real fear anti-deal hardliners could move to carve up the major fundamentalist organisations in which the Ballymena man played a pivotal role.

As well as holding his East Antrim Assembly seat in March’s election, Dawson was also Imperial Grand Master of the Protestant working class movement, the Independent Orange Order.

In spite of only having around 1,000 members, mostly in counties Antrim and Down, compared to the so-called Main Orange Order’s estimated 60,000 brethren and sisters, under Dawson the Independents adopted a highly vocal political profile.

In 1998, following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Dawson was to the fore in using the Independents to slam the David Trimble-led Ulster Unionist pro-agreement Orangemen in the Assembly.

Dawson’s grassroots and background support among fundamentalists was impeccable. He was also the founding chairman of the ultra fundamentalist Caleb Foundation, as well as a member of the ruling council of the Evangelical Protestant Society.

Known as a devout ‘Born Again’ Christian, Dawson was in line for a key post in the proposed Christian Coalition of ‘Saved’ MLAs at Stormont.

Although a stern opponent of the Belfast Agreement in the late 1990s, only a matter of weeks before his death, he was viewed as a staunch supporter of Paisley Senior and his party leader’s involvement with last October’s St Andrews’ Agreement.

Winning his Assembly seat for the first time in 2003 when the DUP overtook the rival UUP as the lead party for Unionism in Stormont, he quickly gained an impressive reputation as one of Paisley’s most loyal right-hand men.

In the religious world of fundamentalist Unionism’s mission halls and Gospel meetings, Dawson became one of Paisley’s key enforcers ensuring the DUP’s highly volatile and influential Bible-thumping wing did not turn its wrath on the Free Presbyterian Moderator for wanting to ‘sup soup with the Shinners’.

Dawson first became a leading figure in Protestant fundamentalism in the mid 1990s when he co-ordinated opposition to the Evangelical Prayer Breakfast Movement on the island.

He tried to unite fundamentalist opposition to Protestant clerics who participated in the prayer breakfast organisation by forming the Caleb Foundation in October 1998. The hardline group was named after the Biblical Old Testament super-spy Caleb.

Dawson was primarily opposed to the presence of Catholic priests at the prayer breakfasts. He vehemently slammed allegations Caleb was nothing more than a recruiting front for the Independents.

As Grand Master, Dawson wiped the eye of the main Order in 2003 when he succeeded in getting the Independents to march at the site of the Boyne to mark the centenary of the Independent Institution.

His leadership of the Independents saw a healing of the rift between the two Protestant Loyal Orders, which began when the Independents were formed in 1903.

Had he lived, he was a hot tip to bring about a formal merger of the two Orange orders – a move which could have resulted in him becoming Grand Master of the new institution.

Among the front runners to succeed Dawson as Independent Grand Master are fellow DUP Assembly member Mervyn Storey from North Antrim, who also helped Dawson form Caleb.

The other leading contender is cleric Rev David McConaghie, a former pastor of Maghaberry Elim Church, who served on the Evangelical Protestant Society (EPS) ruling council with Dawson.

It is only a matter of time before Unionists opposed to the power-sharing Executive form their own Right-wing movement.

With Dawson dead, pro-deal Paisleyites could be forgiven for fearing the Independents, Caleb and the EPS could become a hot bed of fundamentalist Right-wing opposition.

For many years, Paisley Senior had been the guest speaker at the Independents’ annual Twelfth demonstration. Last year, Paisley issued his infamous ‘over my dead body’ speech on power-sharing with republicans.

Even as First Minister of the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition government, had Dawson still been Grand Master, Paisley would have got his invitation to address the brethren and sisters at this year’s Independents’ Twelfth.

With Dawson gone and no longer guarding the Big Man’s back, could known anti-deal fundamentalist sceptics, such as Rev William McCrea, Jim Wells and David Simpson make a realistic bid for power within the DUP?

But perhaps the best way Unionism can honour Dawson's legacy is to formally merge both the Independents and the Main Order as soon as possible.




























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