When the Chuckles had to stop (Part 1)…

The Watchman is a keen observer of Ulster politics for many years now and one who has written extensively on Unionist politics. Now, in two parts written especially for Slugger, he exams in detail the nature of the party that gave rise to Paisley, and now post Paisleyism.By the Watchman

“Then the angel of the LORD went forth and smote in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred four score and five thousand and when they arose early in the morning behold they were all dead corpses.

“So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went and returned and dwelt in Nineveh. And it came to pass as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god that Adrammelech and Sharezer his sons smote him with the sword and they escaped into the land of Armenia. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead.”

Isaiah 37:36-40 (as preached upon by Ian Paisley on 17 November 1985 at Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church)

Two summers ago, next to the pool of a Spanish villa, I read Enoch Powell’s 1977 biography of Joseph Chamberlain. The book is best known for its endlessly quoted final sentence, the one about all political careers ending in failure. Much recent media comment has centred on Ian Paisley, the supposed pantomime villain turned dashing hero. People, who had denounced him for decades, queued up to pay their often greasy tributes.

He was said to have bucked that famous Curse of Enoch. Rubbish. He went because his own party had turned on him, a semi-tragic victim of egotism and self-delusion. These failings cut Big Ian off from his old supporters and left him defenceless in the face of a savage internal putsch. Although their repercussions are still to be worked out, they are set to change unionism for ever.

Paisleyism grew as a powerful fusion of four elements: militant loyalism, Old Time Religion, anti-elitism and social activism. One man gave it physical embodiment in its long march to victory. But he also gave several intriguing glimpses of possible moderation, most notably over voluntary coalition and at Humphrey Atkins’s round-table talks.

These flirtations posed questions. What would he do if he had all of unionism to himself? How would he act if he had no possible rival? What would happen if Paisley was free to indulge his notorious egotism? New questions arose with the passing years. Did his recovery from serious illness fuel a sense of destiny? Did he see himself as a modern Moses leading his people to the Promised Land? But eventually we did learn something. Once he became the leader of unionism, his opposition to power-sharing and to Sinn Fein in government vanished like spring snow on Slemish.

The DUP may have opposed the Belfast Agreement in 1998, but carefully calibrated its opposition once it realised that the UUP was in electoral decline. By 2004, the Robinson wing was ready to cut a deal with Sinn Fein and rumours emerged of secret talks, though officially denied. Paisley seemed unconvinced of the merits of a deal at this point and the negotiations of that year ended without success. He was politically lucky. Neither the reformed Executive nor First Minister Paisley would have survived the Northern Bank robbery. But he would shift his position and by St Andrews in 2006 he was clearly committed to share power with Sinn Fein when he judged the moment to be right.

Most media commentators have failed to get properly to grips with Ian Paisley’s downfall. There are two reasons why. The first is that many of them, perhaps due to secular backgrounds, simply do not grasp how religion has shaped his followers’ concept of leadership. Many thousands of people did not back Paisley for decades just because he articulated their loyalism or their Protestantism. Rather, they saw him as a modern day prophet, God’s Man for the Hour.

This gave Paisley a backing denied to any other unionist leader, a political immortality for as long as he could keep hold of this constituency. It explains the comparative ease with which Paisley finally got his power-sharing Executive. His oldest followers in the country simply could not grasp what was coming. As for those in closer proximity within the top ranks of the DUP, with one key exception, they could not or would not cut loose from him. (Trimble’s biographer Dean Godson savaged them as “Calvinistic caricatures of illiterate Sicilian peasants believing in Papal Infallibility”.)

But the second reason for the confusion is a failure to understand the political structures of the DUP and the way in which they operate. The DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church are highly secretive bodies where dissent is whispered and rarely found in the media. Paisley’s biographer Clifford Smyth is one of the few who does understand this culture. Smyth has described Paisley’s role as akin to an “Irish chieftain of old, commanding total loyalty from his tribe”.

The DUP and Fianna Fail share a “democratic centralism” and he noted that “(b)oth parties are unforgiving to those who speak out of turn, or buck tight internal discipline”. Leading DUP figures have often said that the family atmosphere of the party has ensured any disputes are resolved around a metaphorical kitchen table. But Smyth’s notion of the tribe is more significant because the top of the DUP is dominated by several dynastic families jockeying for position. This is a crucial point of division in the DUP, more than the bogus “religious v. secular” divide. Paisley Senior, as leader, provided an equilibrium that the party will miss without him.

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

  • DC

    “But Smyth’s notion of the tribe is more significant because the top of the DUP is dominated by several dynastic families jockeying for position”

    Highly unlikely the electorate will accept power-grabbing families as appropriate political representation in the 21st century. Such families can jostle but the voters will keep an eye on career politicians in respect of delivering on manifesto pledges. Or that should be the case.

    The issue must be how much party, or family, personalities will interfer with anticipated political progress and against certain political realities. It would seem from this reading that Paisley didn’t really have much substantive politics and if he did they would never ever be competent enough to be ground out into anything legislative, or otherwise.

    Two issues already come to mind and just how the DUP deal with them will be interesting: equality-parity issues and EU stances. For example, Gender Regulations dispatched to Westminster, sexual orientation concerns, etc. You can ignore these but only at the expense of making ignorant certain constituents through misrepresentation of real political arrangements and determined outcomes. This is bluff. This will only create anxiety and frustration, something responsible politicians should be eradicating.

    The DUP may well want to push into a political centrism but they are at odds with Sinn Fein and the new Stormont still requiring a suitable political outworking in terms of its political cultural-identity. While there remains little sense of a belonging across the political spectrum it is highly likely confidence in the institutions will drop as these issues jar before real politicking begins. In order to avoid this the DUP will have to make a political judgement on how much heritage can be carried into the political arena and how much can be debunked in light of the Belfast Agreement.

    In that sense, much of Gerry Adams’ intellectual myth-making of mystical republican heroism may well have to be jettisoned forever. And for Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein, they have managed to include and omit parts of history to create lineage back to the Republic whereby a sense of borderless identity connects the people with the sovereign. Even though such a sovereign debunked large parts of northern PSF ideology in the 60’s through internment. All the same, sovereign Republic moves in its own political direction, not to the tune of the northern Sinn Fein leadership.

    The contemporary Irish national psyche is out of kilter with much of SFs regressive introspective politics, as it now moves into the 21st century disregarding, but not discounting, much of the 20th century historical-cultures. The backing of the peace process is a sure sign that the Republican sovereign has accepted local democracy in Northern Ireland and this is bound to have real consequences on Northern republican narratives.

    Gerry Adams went to the people of the Republic expressing that a vote for Sinn Fein would prioritise a unification project, it was refused amongst other problems with Sinn Fein political stances in the south. Oh, and re the title about ‘Ulster’ politics, I doubt Ulster in a political sense has much mileage left. It’s Northern Ireland. Time to face up to the consequences of compromising.

  • Turgon

    Watchman / Mick,

    Excellent analysis. Until I married into such a (relatively apolitical) family of country Paisley supporters I did not understand the extent to which people really did believe that whatever he did must be the right thing to do.

    Even though my relatives were aware of his fondness for power he was still supported. And they were not even amongst the most staunchly Paisleite with only some of them being Free Presbyterian.

  • And the Lord said onto Paisley, “Do you have any regrets?”. And Paisley replied, “Ninevagh”.

  • aquifer

    Paisley was a temporary fix for a population of colonists coming down from a supremacist high.

    Spiritual methadone replacing a mainline of jobs and cash.

    Now which of his would-be replacements looks most like cold turkey?

  • darth rumsfeld

    excellent piece watchman
    I wonder if one evening in Cypress Avenue the ould croc will be sitting down with Eileen, when a hand will materialise before them , and inscribe on their flock wallpaper the phrase “Mene mene tekel upharsin”

  • Many thanks Mr Rumsfeld,

    I suspect Papa and Mammy’s flock wallpaper already carries the words “Up the Punt” in Aramaic.

    At least the old fool wasn’t as murally dyslexic as Turtleface. But more on that in Part 2.

  • Turgon

    The Watchman,
    Without wishing to be blasphemous; I tend to regard Paisley as in some ways a latter day King Hezekiah with his error at the end of his life after having recovered from illness. As I said before excellent analysis; I am looking forward to the next part.


  • Given that Hezekiah tried to buy off the besieging Assyrians with 300 talents of silver and 30 of gold, your comparison of him to the Chuckle Brother, Turgon, seems spot on.