Ian Paisley and the Protean character of Northern Ireland

Prospect Magazine is carrying my portrait of Ian Paisley in their May edition, available in all good bookshops, etc., etc.. It’s a fairly wide ranging attempt to bracket a forty year long political career. It also attempts to answer why did he deal now, and not earlier. One reason, I suggest, is the changed economic context of the island, north and south:

The economic background matters too. Northern Ireland, and even more so the rest of Ireland, has changed. Paisley is still a man of intense evangelical faith. But his 1960s role of defending Protestant jobs or preventing the north being overwhelmed by what seemed like a third world country over the border no longer apply. The loss of heavy industry, the introduction of fair employment legislation (as far back as 1976) and the growth of cross-border business with the booming republic have changed the ground rules. As Paisley’s voter base moved out of the working class-ghettos, it changed and widened; and Paisley’s scope for political manoeuvre grew with his base’s expanding, middle-class interests and incomes. In the meantime, the once feckless neighbours to the south have taken up recognisably (if secular) Protestant traits, and are now far richer than the Northern Irish. As the writer Andrew Greeley has noted, “If number of hours worked is a sign of the Protestant ethic, then Irish Catholics are the last Protestants in Europe.”