There is plenty that can be said – both good and bad – of the late Lord Bannside, aka the Rev Dr Ian Paisley. For me, he was the political colossus (in Northern Ireland) of my lifetime. That’s despite the fact for all my years living in NI, he led merely the third biggest party, after the UUP and the SDLP.
Unhappy with his church, he founded his own – the Free Presbyterian Church – in 1951. Unhappy with established unionist politics, he founded his own party, the Protestant Unionist Party (in 1966) and later the Democratic Unionist Party (in 1971), which succeeded to primacy at Stormont in 2003. It was four more years before he could be persuaded to take the helm of Northern Ireland’s devolved government, alongside Sinn Féin.
I was never a fan of the ‘Big Man’. His political style was tribal and abrasive. That appeals to many, but never to me.
He was extremely divisive, not just as a unionist arguing against Irish nationalism or as a Protestant denouncing Catholicism, he even divided opinion amongst the voters who might be expected to support him. An old friend of mine, a loyalist, found him obnoxious and refused to shake his hand during a Paisley visit to his workplace.
Paisley had a theological opposition to Roman Catholicism. His opposition to an all-Ireland state was born of his Protestant outlook. He feared his fellow Protestants would be subsumed into a theocratic Catholic Ireland. It was, in a sense, a civil rights issue. Ironic then, that he and his supporters would sabotage the (mainly Catholic) civil rights demonstrations of the late 1960s. Paisley was wary of a theocratic Ireland; the Catholics in the North were already suffering the drawbacks of “a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant State” (as it was described by Northern Ireland’s PM, James Craig in 1934). Those drawbacks included lesser access to housing and open discrimination in the jobs market. Voting rights were restricted to householders, indirectly favouring Protestants, and voting areas were gerrymandered, compounding the challenge.
Paisley’s attitude was often excessive. In 1969, at the height of community tension, he told a loyalist rally that Catholics “breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin”. In 1988, he heckled a visiting Pope (John Paul II) in the European Parliament and accused him of being the Anti-Christ. His most fervent religious supporters loved it, but such grandstanding would only serve to reinforce his marginal credentials.
He was never a supporter of violence, but some of the thugs who counted themselves amongst his supporters stirred up riots at the civil rights demonstrations. Just a few weeks after the first Moon landing, in the summer of 1969, the Army were deployed to help restore peace. Instead they attracted further violence by the IRA, and tit-for-tat retaliation by loyalist paramilitaries. Legitimate targets were very loosely defined.
It took three decades to restore peace. This period was known as The Troubles, and circa 3500 people were killed.
By the 1990s, while other parties were working towards a deal, the DUP were rejectionist. They campaigned against the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998, which was approved in a referendum by 73% of Northern Ireland’s voters. Despite such a clear mandate, independent polling suggested just a narrow majority of Protestants (51%) were in favour of the deal.
Paisley drew strength from this reticence. From the fringes he could pressure the moderate UUP for signing up to an increasingly unpopular peace deal. It was certainly a flawed document – how could it not be? As time drew on, elements of it began to unravel, particularly those which relied on an assumption that Sinn Féin (which signed the document) and the IRA (which didn’t) were one and the same. The IRA took years to decommission its weapons, and Sinn Féin took longer still to recognise and accept the new police service established to replace the RUC.
It was fully nine years from the signing of the GFA to the formation of the Paisley/McGuinness government in 2007. In my view, that is how long it took for the GFA to settle – for the turbulence to be laid to rest. In the four years from 2003-2007, the DUP and Sinn Féin were the leading parties from either side of the tribal divide, but they would not govern together, so Direct Rule from Westminster was the prescribed punishment.
It was during this era – when Paisley was essentially First Minister-in-waiting – when I met him at his church in Belfast. I was visiting my parents in County Antrim with an English friend. He wanted to hear Paisley preach, so off we went. He is as thunderous a preacher as you might expect, and sound in his Gospel teaching. A real experience, but not a church I could ever feel comfortable in. Perhaps that’s the point.
Afterwards, somehow we stumbled into his office by accident (it’s a long story). His thunder was no more and we were heartily encouraged to “come on in lads”. Less the demagogue and more the gentle giant, he engaged us in a few minutes of small talk before praying for us and bidding us a good evening.
Our face-to-face experience is shared by many. Journalists and politicians in NI and Westminster and Brussels were well accustomed to encountering the different faces of Paisley. He was a man of sincerity and kindness, who for many years was so personally close to his political rival John Hume they would share Christmas (soft) drinks and fly together to their MEP engagements in Brussels and Strasbourg.
I have little doubt that, once upon a time, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness (reportedly a former IRA chief of staff) would have happily put a bullet in Paisley’s head – if it was strategically helpful. But after they had served together in the Stormont Executive, they soon became known as the Chuckle Brothers, such was their evident comfort with each other.
None of this is to excuse Paisley for his very real, and negative impact on Northern Ireland’s community relations, particularly at the outset of The Troubles, but also in later years. During the research for my university dissertation (which compared the GF Belfast Agreement with an earlier abortive deal at Sunningdale), I became convinced that the course of history could have been very different were it not for Paisley’s stirring in the 1960s. But there is no counter-factual history. We will never know how things might have been without Paisley.
I do not believe he was evil, nor necessarily wrong in his political outlook (though this is not to side with him). The unfolding of history is a complex process, and the greatest blame must be attributed to the terrorists on both sides.
After years as the ultimate rejectionist, parochially known as ‘Dr No’, he eventually agreed to share power with Sinn Féin in 2007. Paisley was First Minister for just over a year before he had to stand down on health grounds. In my view, his major achievement was the very act of sharing power at all. Symbolically, it was enormous.
But it was widely seen – at least amongst unionists – as a sell-out. I am sure he compromised (apparently out of character), but I don’t believe he betrayed his core beliefs or supporters. By 2007 Sinn Féin had finally accepted the policing institutions, and the major sticking points of the GFA were at last resolved.
Speaking after his death, the BBC’s former Ireland Correspondent Denis Murray said he believed Paisley was “intellectually convinced” of his decision to share power. But it took courage to do it, and he naturally lost support, both politically and subsequently within his church, from which he was later unceremoniously sacked after six decades of service. He threw a strop and never again darkened its doors.
About a decade ago, Paisley was rumoured to be gravely ill. I later – in 2005 – heard him give an address in London, in the St Mary Undercroft cellar chapel of the Palace of Westminster, on the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. At the beginning, he reflected on his illness and confirmed the rumours. But he was now fighting fit:
“Let me share with you a little secret,” he said quietly, before booming, “I will be around for some considerable time to come.”
“Really!” I thought, “you know this?”
It was classic Paisley bravado, and it turns out he was right.
But now, at 88 years of age, he has been called home.
According to Twitter sources, he’s already struck up a power-sharing deal with his maker…