Ian Paisley has been the single most disruptive figure in Northern Ireland’s unionist politics over the last 40 years. Yet at the end of March, the veto-wielding “Doctor No” agreed to end a conflict that has claimed almost 3,700 lives and stained British and Irish life for two generations. In early May, the 81 year old will become first minister in a new Northern Ireland power-sharing executive. As if to underline the painstaking political choreography that lay behind the final deal, it was clinched with a photo opportunity the final details of which took several senior civil servants many hours agree to the satisfaction of both Paisley’s Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin. A week later Paisley was in Dublin, warmly gripping the hands of the Irish taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.
It was all very different back in the early 1960s, when Paisley—always a striking presence at 6’2” with his booming voice and well-groomed appearance—was first emerging on the political scene. In those days the Irish republic was still introverted and poverty-stricken, with a per capita income almost one third below Northern Ireland—which had inherited most of the island’s industry after partition. At this time the north was still a relatively prosperous outpost of Britain, with its straight-laced, hard-working Protestant-unionist majority and still largely acquiescent, semi-excluded Catholic minority. The southern and northern prime ministers were recognised as social and economic modernisers. But when the taoiseach, Seán Lemass, travelled from Dublin to Belfast to meet Terence O’Neill in 1965, Paisley and his supporters assailed him with a flurry of snowballs.
Underwriting northern prosperity were the heavy engineering industries of shipbuilding and aircraft manufacture, manned almost exclusively by the Protestant working class. As Steve Bruce, in The Edge of the Union, notes, “Until the 1960s, Protestants saw themselves as superior. In so far as [they had] advantages, they merited them. Catholics were a joke. Their country was backward, their industry non-existent, and their farming hopelessly antiquated. Then, apparently out of nowhere, the Catholic minority acquired skilled, articulate politicians… who were young and clever and knew how to court public opinion.”
Paisley was widely seen, in Britain as well as Ireland, as the embodiment of Protestant supremacism. His attacks on liberal ecumenists like Donald Soper earned him a deeply negative reputation in London, which took him aback when he first arrived in Westminster, in 1970. Paisley’s belief in the superiority of his own tribe is a mix of the theological and the ethnic, but he has never been a personal bigot. Although he has never had close Catholic friends, throughout his time as an MP, he has enjoyed a reputation for good constituency work across both communities.
Paisley’s father James Kyle exerted a profound influence on him, both politically and religiously. In 1909, within a year of his “conversion to Christ” at the age of 17, this draper’s shop assistant had cleared out the family barn and began preaching to his own congregation, just as his son Ian would later go one step further and establish himself as head of his own church. Kyle’s influence was also political. As a member of Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), he was one of the few who signed the 1912 “solemn league and covenant” against Irish home rule
in his own blood [as interested notes, this is a contested assertion]. His son was born on 6th April 1926 in the religiously mixed city of Armagh. Shortly afterwards his father received a call to preach to a well-to-do Baptist church in Ballymena, in the heart of what became known as Ulster’s bible belt.
But his anti-Popery and hellfire and brimstone did not go down well with the church deacons, and in 1932 he and his young family were asked to leave their comfortable manse in the centre of town. The young Paisley followed his father into the church, and inherited his taste for an “old tyme religion” that was beginning to look antiquated even back then. His mentor, the fiery preacher WP Nicholson, once famously prayed that, “God would give [Paisley] a tongue like an old cow… and make this preacher a disturber of hell and the devil.”
In 1946, at the age of just 20, Paisley was ordained as a minister. Five years later, in the wake of a split in a local Presbyterian church in Crossgar, he joined the newly established Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, and soon became its leader. The church had an evangelical aspect closer to Paisley’s own Baptist roots, but as so often in Northern Ireland, theology and social class were closely intertwined and the church saw itself as the voice of the respectable Protestant working class and lower middle class.
Paisley’s authority as a public figure initially came from his position as a clergyman. Roy Garland, now a liberal unionist commentator, was one of many who, back in the 1960s, came to hear Paisley preach and join his street protests. “I wasn’t enthralled by his preaching. I went to Paisley because I thought we were facing a conspiracy to overthrow Northern Ireland by the IRA, the southern government and elements in the British establishment… Given he was a man of the cloth, you took his word as gospel.”
Paisley’s entrance into politics, in the mid-1960s, coincided with the beginnings of an epic political battle over how unionism should respond to the claims for equal status from the fast-growing and increasingly assertive Catholic minority. The liberal unionist prime minister, Terence O’Neill, was, according to early Paisley biographer Patrick Marrinan, a man who Paisley considered “a foppish weakling… who would grant concessions to the Catholic minority and generally pursue a policy of appeasement.” For its part, the unionist establishment considered Paisley to be an unstable rabblerouser. They played cat and mouse for the rest of the 1960s: O’Neill, the old Etonian mouse; Paisley, the predatory big cat.
A suspicion of involvement in, or at least encouragement of, violence has lingered around Paisley throughout the Troubles. His first overtly political act, during the 1964 general election, was to threaten to lead a march from Belfast city hall to remove an Irish tricolour, banned by law at the time, from the offices of the Republican party headquarters at the bottom of the Falls Road. This led to riots, which, according to Danny Morrison, a former director of publicity for Sinn Féin, played a critical role in politicising local republican youth, not least because a lot of them went to jail for the first time.
Two years later, a hitherto unknown loyalist gang killed a young Catholic barman called Peter Ward, in the Protestant Shankill Road area. In a communication to the press, they resurrected the name of Carson’s old Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). The slide towards murder and mayhem had already begun several weeks earlier, when a politically uninvolved Catholic storeman called John Patrick Scullion was killed in what was first thought to have been a hit-and-run accident. Responsibility for his killing was claimed-only after his funeral-by a “Captain William Johnston,” who added that war was now declared on the IRA.
Embarrassingly for Paisley, between these two murders he had lauded the name of the old UVF to a packed meeting in the Ulster Hall. However, when the UVF name was publicly tied to the Ward murder, he disowned it. One of those convicted of Ward’s murder, Hugh McClean, later stated that he was sorry he had “ever heard of that man Paisley, or decided to follow him.” The nationalist commentator Brian Feeney has voiced the unease felt by many Northern Irish Catholics towards Paisley: “It is very easy to move from attacking the beliefs of an individual church to attacking the individuals of that church, especially when you are saying that these people are threats to the political system.”
Paisley critics point to the more recent circumstantial evidence that after the Stormont elections of November 2003, when the DUP finally won a clear majority of the unionist vote, almost all Protestant paramilitary violence deceased. But there is no hard evidence that Paisley has ever had any role, directly or indirectly, in the murder campaigns of the loyalist paramilitary organisations. Steve Bruce notes, “Over the course of the Troubles, there have been something like 20,000 adult male members of the Free Presbyterian Church. I can find only six who have been accused of any kind of political violence.”
Paisley’s wife, Eileen, from a well-to-do family in east Belfast, was first elected to office, as a councilor in 1967. But Paisley’s rabblerousing had turned him into a household figure, and in1969 he fought his first ever political contest, standing for the Stormont Parliament as a “Protestant Unionist” against the prime minister Terence O’Neill in Bannside. Paisley lost by just 1,414 votes. When a humiliated O’Neill stepped down shortly afterwards, Paisley took his seat. A few months later, he added the Westminster seat of North Antrim to his portfolio. (Journalist Ed Moloney describes Paisley’s career as having been bookended by seeing off two O’Neills: first Terence O’Neill, and then “P O’Neill,” the fictional signatory of the IRA’s communiqués.)
In the 1950s and 1960s, most organised non nationalist resistance to what was then called the “Unionist party”—the forerunner to today’s UUP—came from the non-sectarian Northern Ireland Labour party and a long thread of independent unionists. In September 1971, Paisley took the unprecedented step of founding his own separate party, the Democratic Unionist party, to represent the interests of working-class and fundamentalist Protestants. According to its first chair, Desmond Boal, it was to be “right wing in the sense of being strong on the constitutional issue, to the left on social issues.”
This was a time in which Paisley, uncharacteristically, seemed open to the possibility of new political directions. Cecil King, chairman of the Daily Mirror and one of Paisley’s few friends within the London media, noted how he wavered between wanting to keep the status quo, visualising himself as the next prime minister of Northern Ireland, and even accepting a federal Ireland. As Dean Godson, David Trimble’s biographer, has put it: “The DUP was not so much a unionist party as a party of the Protestant interest.” If that interest was best served in a federal arrangement with the Irish republic, Paisley seemed ready at least to consider it.
Following an upsurge in violence, the Stormont parliament in 1972 was suspended and direct rule from Westminster introduced. The cross-class coalition of mainstream unionism, which had held since the 1920s, broke apart. In 1974, after the Ulster workers’ strike brought down the power-sharing executive set up after the Sunningdale talks, Paisley was able to exploit the consequent political vacuum. By now the growth spurt in the Free Presbyterian Church had tailed off, finally stabilising at about 12,000 members, who remain the core of the DUP today. But with IRA violence still ubiquitous in the late 1970s and early 1980s, especially in rural areas, the party continued to attract non-evangelical voters disillusioned with mainstream unionism. At the 1984 European election, Paisley received 230,000 votes – a third of the Northern Ireland electorate.
The party achieved this wider appeal in part thanks to the young, grammar school-educated Peter Robinson. He won the Westminster seat of East Belfast at the age of 31 in 1979, and became Paisley’s deputy a year later. Paisley has always leant on junior partners, ready to slap them down if they threaten his authority. There has certainly been tension between Paisley and Robinson, but the latter can take most of the credit for turning the DUP into something more than a Paisley personality cult and digging its roots in the new Belfast working class.
In his recent book Ireland Since 1939, historian Henry Patterson explains: “The tensions between the original hard core of Paisleyism—the conservative fundamentalists of areas such as North Antrim—and Robinson’s more pragmatic, left-of-centre populism were easily enough contained through a combination of the integrating force of Paisley’s personality and the healing balm of electoral success.”
In the early 1980s, the Tory government’s attempt to bring devolution back to Northern Ireland failed. When no agreement was forthcoming, Margaret Thatcher in 1985 signed the Anglo-Irish agreement giving the Republic of Ireland a consultative role in the province’s affairs for the first time. In the interests of presenting a unified unionist opposition to the agreement, Paisley entered an electoral pact with the Ulster Unionists. But this worked against the DUP, and the consequences were long-lasting: 12 years later, in the 1997 Westminster election, they took only two out of 12 unionist seats.
In all the attempts to end the conflict, the British government has insisted on two things—power-sharing and some form of Irish dimension—and ruled out two things: Irish unification and independence for Northern Ireland. In more recent years, the focus has switched to making the end to IRA violence irreversible. But at each of the main negotiations, something or someone has been missing. The Sunningdale agreement hammered out in late 1973 between the Unionist party and the moderate nationalist SDLP, represented the best opportunity to bring an early settlement. The deal enshrined power-sharing and a ministerial Council of Ireland. But while the parties were sequestered in Berkshire, Paisley was left free reign on the local media and played a crucial role in undermining the resulting settlement.
The Good Friday agreement of April 1998 got further than any previous attempt. Sinn Féin was brought into executive power, and initiated several cross-border bodies. Paisley and Robinson publicly opposed the agreement, exploiting the difficulty David Trimble’s UUP faced in trying to convince the IRA to decommission, yet at the same time took their ministerial seats at Stormont.
Four years later, in 2002, the whole edifice came crashing down when it was alleged that an IRA spy ring had been operating inside Stormont.
And at the 2003 Stormont election, after Trimble had failed to clinch a deal with Sinn Féin to secure transparent decommissioning from the IRA, Paisley’s DUP took 30 seats to the UUP’s 27, making it the leading electoral force in unionist politics for the first time. Not only had Paisley edged ahead of Trimble, but he had soaked up a small but unpredictable group of anti Agreement parties. Paisley could now claim that he was now the uncontested leader of the Protestant tribe.
Paisley is the great survivor of Northern Irish politics-a significant figure before, during and after the Troubles-and now he has confounded his critics by agreeing to coalition with his old enemies in Sinn Féin. On the face of it, he is just finishing a deal that Trimble failed to close. Seamus Mallon of the moderate nationalist SDLP once described the Good Friday agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners.” So why did it take so long? Did Northern Ireland simply have to wait for Ian Paisley’s giant ego to be placed at the top of the political pile?
Context is all. Sunningdale took place in the wake of a vicious sectarian war which had seen the largest numbers of casualties of the Troubles. Although much of middle-class unionism was ready to cut a deal even then, working-class Protestants were not. The 1998 agreement came after a period of relative peace. And while Sunningdale sought to cut out both extremes, the later agreement aimed to include them.
But what of that Paisley ego? Danny Morrison believes that Paisley’s rise to the leadership is the key to the deal. “I suspect deep down he didn’t want to do what he just did. But he had a problem in that he had taken over the leadership of unionism, and the responsibilities that come with it.” In other words, Paisley merely reflected a key strand of Protestant opinion until forced by his political position to lead it in the only direction it could go. Paisley’s son, Ian Jnr, puts it another way: “Given my father’s power as a leader, and the fact that he has ultimately been the unionist guard dog, the unionist insurance policy if you like for all those years… it was always going to be his call. If he was for it, even if it was tough, it would at least have stickability.”
Clifford Smyth, another Paisley biographer and a former supporter, is less polite: “I have watched Paisley destroy other unionist leaders. And all for the sake of a deal that is much worse than any of those offered by the men he got rid of.” Is this true? It is arguably the case that the cross-border aspects of the new deal are more deeply entrenched than in 1973 and could hasten Irish unification, something many people see as likely in the next 30 years. On the other hand, Sinn Féin has now accepted—after some internal difficulty—the policing and justice arrangements of the British state, and has closed down its army. These things were not on offer to David Trimble.
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.”
Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that there is something unfair about Paisley winning the laurels for a deal for which he has risked so little. Paul Bew, a former adviser to David Trimble, broadly welcomes the settlement, but has concerns about what kind of leadership the two parties of the former extremes can provide for the future: “It would surely have been better if Northern Ireland were proceeding on the basis of moderate, democratic nationalism in partnership with moderate democratic unionism, and that those people who were prepared to take political risks be the leaders of a new society, rather than those who made the least effort and only moved when they had both become kings of their own sectarian community.”
This deal has been a long time in the making, which may help to explain why the final formal conclusion has been greeted without great enthusiasm in the province. And it is possible, but unlikely, that it could still unravel. DUP hardliners may yet baulk at the way that Sinn Féin representatives on both sides of the border manipulate aspects of the deal—Jim Allister, the party’s sole MEP, has already quit the party in protest. But Paisley is now too committed to lead a revolt himself; indeed, if there is significant dissent, it is easier to imagine him following the path of Ariel Sharon and establishing a new centrist party out of DUP and UUP figures.
Paisley has his place in history, and he will not let it slip now. Having battled for 30 years to draw the majority of unionist support under his own party banner, and having found in Sinn Féin a strong opponent capable of ensuring a lasting peace, the pragmatic man, beneath the public caricature, is finally in a position to deliver his last benign disruptive act on the Northern Irish political stage.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty