“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.