In likely his final TV interviews, political firebrand the Rev Ian Paisley makes obvious how he wishes to be remembered. Is he kidding himself, wonders Peter Geoghegan
IAN Paisley has come a long way since 1949. That year the novice preacher began a mission in Belfast’s docklands and joined the anti-Catholic Union of Protestants. Nowadays, “the Big Man” sees himself as statesman rather than sectarian rabble-rouser, as the first of two hour-long conversations with the former Northern Ireland first minister, broadcast by BBC Northern Ireland this week, and widely expected to be his last formal interview, attested.
Paisley, especially to outsiders, is often seen as living proof of the transformative power of the Northern Ireland peace process. A firebrand, hardline Protestant whose Damascene conversion to power-sharing with Catholics culminated in assuming power at Stormont in 2007, where he formed such a firm rapport with his deputy and one-time sworn enemy, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, that wags dubbed the pair the “Chuckle Brothers”.
Now 87, and having suffered a series of health scares, Paisley seems to have one eye on what Tony Blair called “the hand of history”. Mindful of his legacy, Paisley took the opportunity of a turn on national television to paint himself as, amongst other things, a misunderstood advocate of civil rights.
“The whole system was wrong, it was not one man, one vote – that’s no way to run any country. It should be absolute freedom and absolute liberty,” the founder of the Democratic Unionist Party said of the tinderbox situation in late 1960s Northern Ireland. He opposed the civil rights movement, Paisley told his interviewer, journalist Eamonn Mallie, because he felt those behind it wanted a united Ireland, something “no decent law-abiding Protestant could associate themselves with”.
The problem for Paisley is that the historical record – much of it captured on the record – casts serious doubts on such irenic imaginings. He did not just oppose the civil rights movement, he actively organised raucous demonstrations against those demanding a freer, fairer Northern Ireland. In 1969, as sectarian strife began to flare on the streets, he was jailed for organising an illegal protest against a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march in Armagh.
Paisley showed a lukewarm commitment to civil rights, too, when, in 1968, campaigner Bernadette Devlin suggested to him that the Unionist state had been unjust and unfair. There had been wrongs, Paisley conceded, but he maintained: “I would rather be British than fair”.
No wonder veteran civil rights activist Ivan Cooper last week described Paisley’s version of his past as “all over the place”.
Cooper, a Protestant founder of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, said: “Never did Ian Paisley issue one word of compassion or one word of understanding for the civil rights movement. And similarly with Bloody Sunday, it was exactly the same.”
While Paisley attempted to present a more emollient self for the television audience, the egotistical, divisive side of his character occasionally bubbled to the surface. Such as the callous comment that the 33 victims of the 1974 Dublin/Monaghan bombings – the highest toll in a single incident in the Northern Irish conflict until the Omagh bomb – had brought the attacks on “themselves” through their support for Dublin’s government.
“At that time the attitude to Northern Ireland of the southern government was ridiculous. I said I had nothing to do with [the bombing] and I denounced the people who did it. What more could I do? I took my stand, I denounced what was wrong, but I could not say to the people just sit down and let them put a rope round your neck.”
Paisley stood by a previous remark that the IRA were the armed wing of the Catholic Church: “Well that’s true, it stands true in history. They have been, the people of the church of Rome, used to further their interests,” he said. This is the same Paisley who, in his younger days, had organised a mock Mass on the platform of the Ulster Hall.
Paisley is “a complex and protean personality who imagines cyclones of blessings, compares himself to the diminutive Mahatma Gandhi,” Northern Irish poet Tom Paulin wrote in the London Review of Books in 1982. Not much has changed 30 years on. The man who founded first his own church and then his own political party, before finally ascending to the highest office in the land, remains a chimera.
“One of the strongest features of Puritanism,” Tom Paulin noted, “is its autobiographical tendency, its passionate self-regard.” Few people embody this inclination to the same degree as Ian Paisley. Over the years, Paisley – who was born in 1926 to an Evangelical father and a mother who was, in his own words, from “a Scots Covenanting home” – has produced dozens of books combining fire and brimstone theology, sermonising and autobiography.
His decision to participate in the BBC interviews also reflects how much his self-regard is still smarting at his being bounced into relinquishing control of the DUP, and the Stormont assembly, to Peter Robinson in 2008. The former head honcho has been a persistent back seat driver ever since. Paisley has not been able not resist the temptation to take a sideswipe at his former number two; in next week’s interview he denies any responsibility for Peter Robinson’s farcical incursion across the Irish border in 1986 as part of protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Robinson has reacted angrily, describing Paisley’s account as “a failure of recollection”. Sources within the DUP said Mr Paisley was among the organisers of the ill-fated invasion, during which a couple of hundred loyalists paraded in the square before being forced back over the border by Irish police.
Paisley has frequently denied any involvement in violence but, as Paulin observed, “a dynamic millenarian rhetoric can inspire men to place actual dynamite under the status quo”. How many loyalist paramilitaries did Paisley’s fiery rhetoric rouse into action? We will never know. But in his BBC interviews Paisley shows no compunction about his involvement with the Ulster Defence Association during the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Strike, the campaign that he led which eventually toppled the Sunningdale Agreement.
It is easy to caricature Paisley as an arch-unionist, but he is probably better described as an Ulster nationalist. His relationship with Britain – and Britishness – has been marked by ambivalence over the years.
“I am shrewdly suspicious of the British government, I don’t put my faith in the British government,” Paisley told Irish Times journalist Frank Millar in 2008, during an on-going impasse over policing in Northern Ireland. “I think the British government would like someone else where I sit, and would make a deal. Well I intend to sit tight… Do you think I have come to 80 years of age to sell my soul?”
Ian Paisley might not have sold his soul, but reaction from Northern Ireland this week suggests that history might not be as kind to the erstwhile DUP leader as he would hope. Writing in the Belfast Newsletter, unionist commentator Alex Kane reckoned that the Big Man had not changed as much as he would like us to believe: “The Ian Paisley of 1964 is still there: yet, 50 years on, his party and country have left him behind. Will history be kind to him? I wouldn’t put a bet on it.”
The “No” politics that Ian Paisley personified for so many years is still alive in Northern Ireland – as the recent aborted Haass peace talks illustrated. Paisley is not the demagogue he once was, but, as these interviews demonstrate, neither is he the uncompromised “peacemaker” he yearns to be.