Ian Paisley: from demagogue to democrat

Ian Paisley (image via Eurofree3)
Ian Paisley (image via Eurofree3)

My earliest memory of Ian Paisley is on the news from a black and white television set. It was the early seventies, the height of Northern Ireland’s war which the news presenters called the “troubles”. Paisley was a chief trouble-maker and a daily presence in Irish affairs. In grainy footage he would appear in front of flag-waving protestants. With his a lantern jaw, rosy-red cheeks and forbidding glasses Paisley would shout out with unerring steeliness and swagger in a sharp Ulster accent: “No surrender! No Surrender!” His simple negative but rhythmic message, spoke at a visceral level to an ancient sense of threatened privilege. It was met with huge cheers and dogged resolve by his working class audience.

To my young eyes Paisley was incomprehensibly strange. His ever-present dog collar marked him as a man of god, but he didn’t talk like a preacher. While I found Paisley’s fierce enmity to Ireland and Catholicism unfathomable, I wasn’t afraid of him – it was just television after all. But if this was the rapturous reception his dour Presbyterianism and hatred of all things Catholic and Nationalist got in Belfast, then I didn’t want to have anything to do with their part of Ireland. I agreed instinctively with my paternal grandmother who wished a giant set of scissors would cut off troublesome Northern Ireland and let it drift away into the North Atlantic.

My ideas on the north changed as I understood more of its complex history and my opinion on Paisley softened. He remained a firebrand anti-popish folk devil but that also made him a figure of fun. His Calvinistic “Wee Free” Presbyterian domination (which he co-founded in 1951, aged 29) seemed a Pythonesque puritan outcrop of an increasingly pointless religion dedicated to keeping gays illegal, and pubs and playgrounds closed on Sundays. His hardline Unionist politics was also irrelevant as my own sense of Irish nationalism diminished.

While Paisley’s mix of religion and politics seemed silly, it was prescient. Ayatollah Khomeini showed in 1979 how to become a politically successful theocrat. Paisley kept up the rhetoric as years passed and he was a thorn in the side of English and Irish leaders. He sabotaged Ted Heath’s Sunningdale Agreement in the 1970s, brought down Thatcher’s Anglo Irish Agreements in the 1980s, opposed Tony Blair’s Good Friday Agreement in the 1990s and was suspicious of the IRA’s truce in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Despite his obstructionism the public tirade was increasingly a charade. The private Paisley was a charming man and he and wife Eileen would entertain Northern nationalist leader John Hume and his wife for dinner.

This would have been disquieting to supporters if they ever found out. They preferred the blustery Paisley and “No Surrender” was a simple and effective message to sell to worried Protestants. Behind the scenes, Paisley was considering some form of surrender. While always personally popular, his Democratic Unionist Party failed to dominate the more moderate Official Unionist Party. But Northern Irish opinions hardened on both sides as the ballot box replaced the bullet in the late 1990s. Hume’s peace-talking SDLP was replaced by Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein while Protestant seats fell to the DUP. By the mid 2000s Adams and Paisley were dominant, and the time was ripe for talks on Paisley’s terms.

Paisley was 80 when the St Andrews Agreement was signed in October 2006 but he remained the dominant force in Loyalist politics. The Agreement was an astonishing compromise which put forward new models for government, the police and the courts. Sworn enemies formed a coalition government. Paisley’s Unionists became major partners with the “terrorists” Sinn Fein. Their leader Gerry Adams was a bridge too far, having served years in Belfast’s The Maze prison but crucially the Unionists decided they could work with Adams’ deputy Martin McGuinness. McGuinness was, like Adams, an IRA leader but never served time in a Northern Irish prison. His two criminal convictions (for being near an explosive-loaded car and being a member of the IRA) were across the border in the Republic of Ireland. Paisley established a warm rapport with McGuinness. Often seen laughing together, they became known as the Chuckle Brothers.

There was a serious side to the chuckling and both men seized a chance to bring devolution to Northern Ireland on their terms. That McGuinness and Paisley’s aims were radically different didn’t matter, this was real power and both men were determined to grab it. Paisley’s relentless negativity when in opposition, softened in government. He became Northern Ireland’s first First Minister, aged 81, and like Mandela in South Africa in the 1990s he steered a path towards workable democracy before retiring in 2010. Paisley’s success can be judged by the longevity of the government – the DUP and Sinn Fein remain in unlikely partnership. Paisley was not easy to forgive for the way he destroyed hopes of peace for 20 years. But his path from demagogue to democrat shows cunning calculation. It also shows a person of great imagination. I was surprisingly saddened to hear Paisley had finally surrendered to his maker on Friday, aged 88. His legacy is mixed but Northern Ireland has lost a giant of a man in many ways. His bile was vile but the wisdom and spirit of his compromise was second to none.


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