Unsurprisingly here’s been a deluge of comment on Ian Paisley after his decision to step down in May. Little of it original, since the valedictories have been hitting the press at regular intervals since his final ascend-ency to the First Minister-ship last year. Dean Godson in the Times shows a little frustration with the pieties of some. Gerry Adams, in that bizarre new vernacular that seems to have overtaken the two former fundamentalist parties, describes the big man as ‘a fascinating and gracious man‘. A feeling not shared by Susan McKay in the Irish Times (subs needed):
He was a dictator. He threatened “the mailed fist”. He marched armed men up mountainsides. He claimed when Thatcher signed the Anglo Irish Agreement with Garret FitzGerald that she would “wade knee-deep in the blood of loyalists”. He said the peace process was “the worst crisis in Ulster’s history”, and the Good Friday Agreement was a “partnership with the men of blood” and a “prelude to genocide”.
He loved to tower over the brink while others plunged into the abyss. The emergence of the Provisional IRA was perhaps his first self-fulfilling prophecy.
Willie Frazer acknowledges the compassionate (subs needed) side of the man, but questions why the 1973 Sunningdale settlement was not good enough for him:
The one thing that we would find as victims is that he was the man who came into our homes and said that we needed to stand firm, that people in the Border areas needed to stand firm. That they did and paid a heavy price for it. Then we had the Sunningdale agreement in 1974, for the life of us what was so wrong with that agreement whenever they went for the St Andrews agreement? That has left many of our people hurt. They believe that at the very least Paisley owes them an answer.
It’s unlikely that an answer to such an awkward question (see under ‘stupid questions’) will be forthcoming.
But this is all an old game. The best description I’ve heard of his role in Northern Irish politics in the years since Robinson’s (some might say Jesuitical) decision to take Ministerial seats without joining the Executive comes from a one time supporter from his early activist days. He was a kind of El Cid, tied to horse, leading the troops on one final victory, all political life drained.
His last achievement, as Frank Millar pointed out in the Irish Times yesterday, was to press for a shift on policing from Sinn Fein. A shift that it is still feeling some pain from in its heartlands of the Markets, the Short Strand, and even in some parts of Adams’ own West Belfast backyard.
I saw Paisley Senior on the day he announced his post dated resignation. He was dignified, statesmanlike and fully conversant with this strange new common language both Sinn Fein and the DUP have finally bought into: a pacific dialectboth once dismissed as Alliance-speak. The nature of his final departure may still be in the balance, and his may not be the last reckoning of this post peace process era.
But then again, as today’s Irish Times editorial notes: “The history books like winners and Dr Paisley may have removed himself just in time to avoid fulfilling Enoch Powell’s dictum that all political careers end in failure.”
If his final U-Turn puzzled both his voter base and his church, he and Martin McGuinness, (lately known as the Chuckle Brothers) have irrevocably changed the tone of politics here. And for that, if for nothing else, we may have to be, however reluctantly, grateful.