Ian Paisley – a demagogue and a gentleman

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.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement - rejected by Ian Paisley

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement – rejected by Ian Paisley

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…


HMS Dauntless: A peace-keeping deterrent in the South Atlantic

I reckon few Britons know this (and for that matter, probably few Argentines). The Falkland Islands are not ‘just off the Argentine coast’. At the closest point, they are 185 nautical miles (or 213 statute miles) from Isla de los Estados, just off the south east tip of Argentina. They are about 250 miles (nautical) from the mainland coast.

Argentina accepts the principle that in international maritime law, territorial waters stretch to 12 miles offshore. That’s a key point  in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The 162 signatories include Argentina and the United Kingdom.

The Falkland Islands
185 nautical miles separate Argentina and ‘Islas Malvinas’

So – at the closest point – the Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas, lie 15 times beyond Argentina’s territorial waters. The distance is such that a sailor bound from one territory to the other would not see land for 80% of the journey. The Falklands are as far from Argentina as London is from Paris or Amsterdam. They are twice as far as Cuba is from mainland Florida.

At that distance, the Falkland Islands obviously lie beyond Argentina’s territorial waters. But the UN treaty also spells out the definition of a country’s exclusive economic zone. That’s up to 200 miles offshore. The Falkland Islands are just within that radius.

It’s quite understandable that Argentina should want to exploit resources (such as oil and fish) inside its EEZ. But then the United Kingdom wants to do the same.

Both countries claim sovereignty over the islands. International recognition is varied, and the United Nations is neutral on the issue. But Argentina’s difficulty is that the Union Flag flies over the islands. And, since the war in 1982, no British government dare let them go.

The prospect of oil near the Falklands has been envisaged for several decades, but the first successful strike wasn’t until 2010. The islands have long been of great symbolic significance to both the UK and Argentina, but now there is a significant economic interest too. That is more than can be said for Northern Ireland, in which a previous British government said it had “no selfish economic or strategic interest” (Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, November 1990). I know of no revision to this.

As with Northern Ireland, the deciding principle should be that of self-determination: the right of the Falkland Islanders to decide their own future. That principle is enshrined in the United Nation’s founding charter, and it represents the United Kingdom’s strongest argument.

The Falkland Islands have never had a native people. The people who live there now – mainly descendants of the plantation – are the only stakeholders to the question of self-determination. Overwhelmingly, they consider themselves British, and we should respect that.

But there is an awkward stalemate. Argentina suffered a military defeat in 1982. It surrendered its occupation, but not the question of sovereignty. Now despite (indeed because of) its presence in the region, the United Kingdom is losing influence in South America, where other nations back Argentina’s claim.

As oil investors are tempted into the region, they will want the question of sovereignty resolved. It would be a risky venture to invest in Falkland oil without assurances about the stability of the contracts. It is in the interests of Argentina to play up those risks.

I believe there is no near-term prospect of a deal with Argentina; certainly not on the essential question of sovereignty. Without a deal, the United Kingdom must be ultra-steadfast on its defence of the islands. As Argentina revisits its ambitions, it’s no surprise the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Dauntless has been sent to the region. The British government described that deployment as ‘routine’. But if Buenos Aires is concerned about the ‘militarisation’ of the South Atlantic, at least it has got the message.

The UK is not about to go  to war with Argentina. Perhaps – as a deterrent – HMS Dauntless will help keep the peace.

A reminder The Troubles are over

The despicable murder of Pc Ronan Kerr is a tragedy for his family and a terrible episode for the Police Service of Nothern Ireland. He was killed, I surmise, because he was a Roman Catholic, like Pc Stephen Carroll before him (in April 2009). Together they are the only police officers murdered in the ten year history of the PSNI.

That decade has been remarkable for its relative peace. The political landscape has been turbulent, but the contrast with The Troubles is profound. In that period (1968-1998), the Royal Ulster Constabulary (precursor to the PSNI) lost more than 300 officers to terrorism.

The PSNI is a product of the Belfast Agreement (Good Friday 1998), which called for “a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland”. Whether fairly or unfairly, the RUC was divisive: broadly supported by Protestants and distrusted by Catholics.

At the time of the Belfast Agreement, Catholic police officers made up about 8% of the RUC. In the nearest census (2001), Catholics represented 44% of Northern Ireland’s population.

For the PSNI, a recruitment quota was introduced. 50% of new officers were Protestant and 50% Catholic. Now 30% of all PSNI officers are Catholic. The PSNI remains unbalanced, but not absurdly so.

Politically, much has changed. Many parties, including Sinn Fein, worked together to negotiate the Belfast Agreement. But it was never formally endorsed by Sinn Fein and from the outset it was openly rejected by the DUP. Now the two parties lead the Northern Ireland Executive together.

Not so long ago it would have been unthinkable to imagine Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sharing an office together. One was a provocative firebrand Protestant minister, the other a former commander of the Provisional IRA. But their relationship as First Minister and Deputy First Minister was so good they became known as the Chuckle Brothers.

The relationship between Peter Robinson and Mr McGuinness is considered a little cooler. But their working relationship is broadly effective.

The Executive would not exist at all had Sinn Fein not resolved to support the policing structures in 2007. Its lack of support had been the major stumbling block. Before that, it was the issue of weapons decommissioning. Both issues were extremely difficult for Sinn Fein, but their resolution was essential to winning unionists’ confidence.

There are some republicans who remain deeply opposed to the PSNI and continue to see it as a reviled instrument of the British state. They are especially unhappy that Catholics feel they can join such a force, and they see Sinn Fein as traitors for supporting it. They are few in number, but that is cold comfort to the families of Pc Carroll and Pc Kerr.

What may help, just a little, is that abhorrent events often have a habit of galvanising public opinion. The public appetite for peace became stronger still after the Omagh bombing, and their patience with extremists evaporated after the murder of Pc Carroll. He was killed in Craigavon. That Pc Kerr was killed in Omagh is ironic and laden with symbolism. The Omagh bombing in August 1998 killed 29 people and two unborn babies. It was the worst single atrocity of The Troubles, but it was also the last.

The Omagh bombing was condemned by both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Their words would have sounded hollow to many victims of the IRA, but they were important; they symbolised a recognition that the public would tolerate violence no longer.


Debris from an IRA car bomb shot through my bedroom window in 1989. I was out.

This week, on Monday, in a display of unity, Northern Ireland’s Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, was flanked by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, along with the Justice Minister, Alliance’s David Ford. Mr McGuinness’s message included this:

There has been much discussion of the whole issue of young Catholics joining the police and the effect that the killing of Ronan will have on them. I know there are many young Catholics in the police who are very nationalist and indeed republican minded. I am as proud of them as Nuala Kerr [Pc Kerr’s mother] is of Ronan.

There was a time when the IRA targeted police officers and Sinn Fein behaved as apologists. In its prime, the IRA created no-go areas for the RUC. In effect, it acted as a separate police force in certain areas, dispensing summary justice.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary was seen both as a component of the British war machine and as a Protestant stronghold. Catholics who joined the RUC struggled with intolerance from their fellow officers and cries of treachery from their own communities. Many paid with their lives.

The fact that Sinn Fein now supports the police, and that Martin McGuinness expresses pride in young Catholic officers, is astonishing. But it is just one example in a long list of developments over the past decade or so which would have seemed unthinkable not long before.

Mr Kerr’s funeral took place at a Roman Catholic church in County Tyrone on Wednesday. Peter Robinson was among those paying their respects. As a prominent tribal Protestant, he had never before attended a Requiem Mass, but there is a time for everything:

It’s a personal decision I have taken. Not everyone will agree with it. But I hope people will understand that when dissidents murder a young man, it is right that the political establishment stands up and makes it very clear that they stand with this family.

Northern Ireland stands united against the killers. The murder of Pc Kerr was committed by nihilistic thugs with virtually no popular support. It is a tragedy, a reminder of an era which felt like it would never end. But it did.

Northern Ireland is not a perfect place. It still has its problems. The transition to peace continues. But the threats to peace are isolated and impotent. The Troubles are over.

The Pope ‘forgets’ Northern Ireland

The Pope has paid a lot of attention to us Brits this year. He visited Scotland and England in September, and today he delivered BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. All creatures great and small have delivered this daily address over the years. Though none as great in the eyes of ecclesia as His Holiness, the successor to St Peter.

After all the righteous criticism levelled at the Roman Catholic church on its handling of sex abuse scandals, it is understandable the Pope should want to take the opportunity to set the agenda.

Thought for the Day is a religious reflection. There is an ongoing debate on whether it should be open to non-religious voices from time to time. But that is how it is for now.

It is not a political reflection. Or at least it shouldn’t be. But, by an act of omission, has the Pope unwittingly strayed into controversial political territory?

He recalls “with great fondness [his] four-day visit to the United Kingdom”. He follows this with a contemplation of the Christmas message and then a plea for us:

Dear friends from Scotland, England, Wales, and indeed every part of the English-speaking world, I want you to know that I keep all of you very much in my prayers during this Holy Season.  I pray for your families, for your children, for those who are sick, and for those who are going through any form of hardship at this time.  I pray especially for the elderly and for those who are approaching the end of their days.  I ask Christ, the light of the nations, to dispel whatever darkness there may be in your lives and to grant to every one of you the grace of a peaceful and joyful Christmas.  May God bless all of you!
Pope Benedict XVI, Thought for the Day, 24 December 2010

I note that after reflecting on his “visit to the United Kingdom” he then addresses “friends from Scotland, England, Wales, and indeed every part of the English-speaking world”. What about Northern Ireland? While it is self-evidently part of the English-speaking world, it is also one of just four UK territories. Three nations are mentioned. One is not.

Northern Ireland listeners (if, like most, they happen to own a television) are among those who pay for the BBC through their TV Licence. It is very much a part of the United Kingdom; the Republic of Ireland has made no claim on it since its ratification of the Belfast Agreement in 1998. Even Sinn Fein accepts the status quo for now, though with great reluctance.

For the Pope to have left Northern Ireland unmentioned, especially given the historic religious sensitivity, seems like a careless oversight. Perhaps so; but I would be amazed if his advisers did not think it through.

If they did, the omission of Northern Ireland was deliberate. The Pope has a right, and a duty, to be controversial. But by failing to mention Northern Ireland in his broadcast, he is in danger of offending both Catholics and Protestants, if perhaps for different reasons.

Update (28 Dec 2010): I just remembered that the British Ambassador to the Holy See is Francis Campbell (Northern Ireland born and raised). This makes the omission of Northern Ireland in the Pope’s address even more fascinating.