“By their Fruits Ye shall know them; ” Matthew 7.16

Now the Month’s Mind is over, how should we regard him?

Park for a moment that late Damascus –like conversion to power sharing, that invoking of the Song of Solomon when he took over as Northern Ireland’s First Minister.

He was never short of a pithy phrase:
“Blaspheming Roman Scum” — Catholics.
“They breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin” — Irish Catholics.
“This Romish man of sin is now in Hell” — on the death of John XXIII.
“Bog People” — the Ulster Irish dispossessed in the Seventeenth century.

My personal favourite was his frequent retort to Irish reporters asking a difficult question – “Let me smell your breath.”

Time Magazine once described him as an Elmer Gantry style figure. Yet Paisley was much more than a glib shyster spouting the bible at ignorant US plebs. He was a towering figure in Twentieth Century Irish history, one who played a major part in what we still refer to as “The Troubles.” And he had support – right to the end he was Northern Ireland’s greatest vote getter.

He fused Religion and Politics in a way rarely seen in modern times. When he first emerged, we did not take him seriously. A Neanderthal using phrases and language not heard – or widely believed – since Cromwell. There’s a moral here. Listen carefully to what people are saying – everyone from Hitler to Bin Laden – and ignore at your peril!

He came to attention initially in 1959 when he threw the Bible he professed to espouse at Donald Soper, a Methodist minister who doubted its literal truth. But it was Catholics at whom he directed his special ire. The Pope – any Pope – was the Whore of Babylon, or Antichrist, whatever that means. He picketed the Second Vatican Council. He picketed and disrupted ecumenical services in Britain. His shouting figure, surrounded – usually – by a posse of placard waving louts, some wearing clerical collars, became a familiar figure on our televisions in the 1960s.

He was superb at hurling biblical quotes at his opponents, drawing inspiration from the King James’ Bible. The Jacobean scholars who crafted this literary masterpiece have much to answer for. Would – could – Paisley and legions of pulpit thumping bigots over the ages have achieved the same effect with the anaemic New English or Douai versions?

He was, of course, more than just a bible spouting bigot. He was a brilliant demagogue. While much material has been lost, look at his Drumcree speech in 1995 on You Tube, or the fragments that survive from the 60s. Oswald Mosley and Enoch Powell have been described as accomplished mob orators. They simply weren’t in Paisley’s class. Hitler’s rants – from the newsreels – come closest. And Paisley shared with Hitler the ability to turn minds with his words, albeit – thankfully – on a much smaller stage.

He was a towering, intimidating, aggressive figure, burly and well over six foot at a time when most people were not. His bellow added to the charisma, for he was the shouter – downer par excellence. I never witnessed him bested, even when thrown out of meetings or events. Yet he could be personable and charming when he wanted, as he was when I encountered him a quarter of a century ago.

At some time in the fateful decade of the Sixties, while ranting at Catholicism, he focussed on politics – perhaps always his intention. His targets expanded to embrace Irish republicanism, whether in the imagined menace from the Republic or in the discriminated minority of Irish nationalists – Catholic to boot – within the North. He was on surer ground here.
For if most of his listeners deep down had scant regard for the hellfire in the afterlife he raged about, many were worried, and indeed fearful, of the country to the South, less prosperous, with its revanchist constitutional claim, and its Catholic Church-dominated society . They were equally apprehensive of the nationalist minority living among them and were conscious also of their own minority status on the island as a whole and the dubious political settlement that had gifted them their position.

“We will never forsake the blue skies of Ulster for the grey mists of an Irish Republic.” Paisley tapped into these fears, exploited them, painting the issues as zero sum and opposing every concession or reasonable attempt at compromise. He told Bernadette Devlin in 1968 he would rather be Protestant than just. He spent four decades holding fast to that tenet. He provoked serious rioting in 1964 over the display of a tricolour during elections in Belfast. He opposed and picketed meetings between the political leaders on the island. When the Civil Rights movement got under way in 1968 he organised violent counter-demonstrations.

Even as people began to be murdered in large numbers he had a Teflon-like quality for evading direct responsibility. Yet few doubted where he stood. I recall the numerous crude graffiti in Belfast in those early days “UVF – Rev. Ian” and the more pointed one in a nationalist area that threatened vengeance. Yeats in a late poem pondered whether his play had sent “out certain men the English shot.” Paisley, though never directly fingered for involvement, with his superb demagogy and his gift for harnessing and igniting quiescent fears, as many loyalist paramilitaries have testified, provided support and sustenance for their actions.

When political settlement seemed possible, wrecking became his forte. In 1969 he destroyed a decent Prime Minister, derailing a reform process that could have prevented the awful decades that followed. In 1974, when calm was needed, he was to the fore in wrecking the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement. Any Unionist politician advocating compromise was outflanked by Paisley, his career destroyed. He opposed the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement (“ Never, Never, Never.”). A decade later, when the ceasefires were in effect, he did his best to fan the flames yet again at Drumcree.

Then, the sea change. Paisley was the last man standing, every rival Unionist politician routed, his party, the DUP, the largest Unionist party. Suddenly, incredibly, he abandoned his previous stances and went into government with Sinn Fein in 2007, declaring that “Northern Ireland has come to a time of peace, when hate will no longer rule.” He was by then 81. One perceptive commentator probably got it right by suggesting that mixed in with egotism was his final realisation that compromise was the least bad option. “ Sunningdale for slow learners.”

His tenure in government lasted only a year. Later he claimed to have been forced out by his own party and remained bitter to the end. But, his age apart, it is not hard to see why he was ousted. By going in with Sinn Fein, however he dressed it up, he lost the ability to wreck, to command a veto, becoming just another politician. By saying Yes he clearly helped set Northern Ireland on a new path. The tragedy is that this could have been achieved decades earlier, and so much bloodshed and bitterness avoided, had Paisley not rampaged through the middle ground of moderate unionism. We would think better of him had his conversion been more timely.

He won’t be missed.




Who did Irish television viewers choose in 2001 as the Irishman of the Twentieth Century? The
answer might surprise. None of the Taoiseachs I mentioned in my last piece, nor our Poets. No sports
personalities or rock stars. It says a lot about the public’s ability to be discerning that they chose a
mild mannered former civil servant, Ken Whitaker, still happily with us at age ninety seven.

A strong candidate as the greatest living Irishman, he is now the subject of a compelling biography
by one of Ireland’s foremost biographers, Anne Chambers, which traces his rise in the bureaucratic
ranks, his spells as Secretary ( head) of the Department of Finance, and Governor of Ireland’s
Central Bank (Ireland’s Fed), and his long and very active retirement.

Particularly fascinating is the account of the close working and personal relationships between Ken
Whitaker and two Irish Taoiseachs, Sean Lemass and Jack Lynch and his involvement in the two
defining aspects of their rule, handling the economy and dealing with the crisis in Northern Ireland. In
both of these his role and influence were key, without ever stepping over the boundary lines between
dutiful civil servant and elected politician.

Ken Whitaker was no Sir Humphrey, the character in a 1980s BBC satirical comedy, a bureaucratic
mandarin who shamelessly manipulated his political master. “A brave idea, Minister,” Sir
Humphrey’s response to a ministerial initiative which was either suicidal politically or of which he
did not approve. Sir Humphrey also stood ready to advance the five reasons for doing nothing on any

Whitaker defined his approach as giving Ministers the best possible unbiased advice when policy was
being considered, and, once decided on, carrying out that policy to the best of his ability, regardless of
personal views. But this could require at times a need for harsh truths, none more so than in the
Ireland of 1957.

The period since 1945 had been disastrous for Ireland, economically and socially. Several appalling
governments had presided over stagnation that threatened to become terminal. Between 1949 and
1955 Ireland’s GNP increased by just 10.5%, compared to 36.5% in the rest of Europe, a Europe
recovering, incidentally, from war damage –something neutral Ireland had been spared. In 1957 2% of
the population – almost 60,000 people – emigrated. My own family was among them, as were some
people reading this column.

De Valera, re-elected Taoiseach at seventy five, seemed oblivious. He was on recent record as
stating that the restoration of the Irish language remained “Fianna Fail’s greatest national objective.”
Economically the country had languished behind high tariffs to protect a handful of inefficient
industries, while agriculture, exporting almost exclusively to Britain, was hamstrung by Britain’s
cheap food policies. This low risk and myopic approach might have been justified to get the country
through the Second World War without starving but by 1957 it had had its day. Irish politicians
seemed never to have heard of Keynes, which had at least the virtue that they did not try to borrow to
the hilt.

There was no lack of ideas. Ken Whitaker had plenty, He was just forty and already acknowledged as
Ireland’s most brilliant civil servant. His rise had been meteoric, culminating in his appointment as the
youngest ever Secretary of the Department of Finance, acquiring on the way a Master’s Degree in
Economics as well a considerable reputation among his peers internationally. His problem was that
politicians simply did not listen.

Then one did. Whitaker’s blunt analysis of the Irish Economy for the new government pulled no punches. “Policies of protectionism were condemning “the people to a lower standard of living than the rest of Europe.” Then the killer. Unless there were new policies, Whitaker wrote, “it would be better to make an immediate move towards re-incorporation in the United Kingdom rather than wait until our economic decadence became even more apparent.”
Harsh truths indeed from a civil servant to his political masters, but words that needed to be said – and listened to. The strong man of the Cabinet, and heretofore leading advocate of protectionism, Tanaiste Sean Lemass, listened and threw his weight behind Whitaker.

The seminal “Economic Development “document, written by Whitaker and a small dedicated team, was approved by the Government during 1958. It was eventually published, unusually, under Whitaker’s name. There would be no doubting who had come up with the new ideas, but once they worked there was honour all round. The ideas could not have worked without political support, and to his credit Lemass provided it.

Whitaker’s ideas were incorporated in a modest economic programme for growth up to 1963 including export- oriented expansion, the encouragement of inward investment and movement towards free trade. The targets were achieved, critically boosting the country’s morale by showing that things could improve. Further programmes followed. The economy, and Ireland, was never the same again, with Lemass, Taoiseach after 1959, providing the muscle.

Chambers’ book is packed with fascinating detail on the political and economic events of the years that followed as Ireland grew economically and, with Ken Whitaker’s sure hand at the tiller, opened up to international organisations and towards the emerging EEC. He was never afraid to speak his mind and rapidly became the close confidant of both Lemass and his successor, Jack Lynch.

Ken, a Northerner from Rostrevor, had developed a close personal relationship with Northern Ireland Premier Terence O’Neill in the course of attending IMF meetings. This relationship led to the ground-breaking O’Neill Lemass meetings in 1965, which initiated dialogue between the two parts of Ireland and fostered the beginnings of official cross border cooperation. Whitaker thought long and hard about how relations between the two parts of the island might be improved.
This stood him – and Jack Lynch, and Ireland – in good stead when O’Neill’s reforms collapsed and the North began to slide towards chaos. A passionate opponent of violence, he presented a thoughtful position paper to Lynch as early as November 1968 pointing clearly to the ruinous costs of any reunification and advocating a long term strategy of good
neighbourliness. In 1969 he moved to become Governor of the Central Bank at age 52, for reasons still unclear. What IS clear is that he and Charlie Haughey, his Minister, did not get on. We can only speculate.

He continued to provide counsel and advice to Jack Lynch, particularly in facing down Haughey, Blaney and co in 1970 – another reason for his country to thank him. And, for a generation, he provided considered and reasoned contributions to the search for peace. He became a senator. He continued to work on for decades in other areas of public service, chairing bodies including prison reform, the Irish language, Irish fisheries, and, at eighty, a constitutional review group. He retains a love for classical music.

His biography is well worth a read, capturing the man, and would make a good Christmas stocking filler. One chapter, “A Man for All Seasons” is clearly one affectionate image the author has of her subject.

Ken Whitaker was born in the Year of the Rising. It would be fitting if he were there to celebrate its centenary. No one deserves the Centenarian Bounty more.


N.B. I had just reviewed Anne Chambers’ book on Ken Whitaker for the Irish Independent. I had been confined to 850 words for the review, but felt that more should be written about an outstanding public servant at a time when there is so much denigration of the public service in Ireland and elsewhere. This does slightly more justice to the man.