Paisley and Prospero

At the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero turns to the audience and says “Now my charms are all o’erthrown And what strength I have’s mine own.”

Now at the end, it seems, of his political career (I believe he is going next Thursday, though I here his farewell bash is tomorrow, so I had better hurry to get my ticket) Dr. Paisley is lauded at the Boyne along with Ahern. Paisley has received numerous accolades since agreeing to enter power sharing with SF (admittedly none weirder than Oldie of the Year). Paisley has been celebrated by both Tony Blair and George Bush, yet amongst some hard line unionists and possibly even some in his party his “charms are all o’erthrown.”
A vast amount has been written about why Paisley went into the agreement. Some who support the agreement have seen him as wishing to have a “positive” legacy, it has even been suggested that he now feeling that he will soon meet his Maker wants to “redeem” himself. I would suggest that the first might be true but more likely betrays a failure to understand the world view of people like Paisley and latter shows a complete misunderstanding of fundamentalist Protestant theology.

More cynical voices have suggested that Paisley was interested in power for himself alone and as such opposed every agreement until there was one which would leave him as First Minister. One might even see the change in the voting arrangements for the First Minister’s post as an attempt to ensure that unionists would have to make the DUP the largest party within unionism and hence give Paisley the first minister-ship lest it fall to Sinn Fein.

Dr. Paisley himself seems at times to have veered between two alternative though not necessarily mutually exclusive reasons for going into power sharing with Sinn Fein. At times he has said that this was a great deal for unionism and that his pledge to “Smash Sinn Fein” has been effectively achieved with IRA decommissioning and SF now supporting the police. At other times the explanation has been somewhat less triumphant and he has raised the spectre of Plan B which, we were told, would result in defacto joint sovereignty.

Unionist opponents of the current agreement have tended to be most suspicious of these Paisley explanations; most anti agreement unionists would probably accept that St. Andrews is an advance over the Belfast Agreement. However, this advance is seen as a small incremental advance and nowhere near the renegotiation which the DUP appeared to be seeking when they became the majority party within unionism and effectively took over negotiations on behalf of the unionist community.

Equally anti agreement unionists have been most sceptical of Paisley’s explanation of the dreaded Plan B. Jim Allister has pointed out that Paisley never told him anything of the substance of this Plan B when he (Allister) was arguing against the agreement from within the DUP. Others have pointed out that Paisley has never been one to waver before threats and blackmail from anywhere, including from the British Government. As such anti agreement unionists (often once amongst Dr. Paisley’s most ardent supporters) tend to feel that he was bewitched by the lust of power and was happy with an agreement which would make him leader.

There might be one other partial explanation as well, however. Paisley denounced the previous compromises suggested by O’Neill, Faulkner after Sunningdale or Trimble after the Belfast Agreement. He even denounced Jim Molyneaux as “Judas.” On each of these occasions, however, Dr. Paisley was on the outside. On each occasion the leader or leaders of unionism (but not Paisley) had felt the full weight of the persuasion of the British government, often backed up by the weight of Irish, and United States governments’ opinion along with the international pressure for a “solution”. On each of those occasions according to hard line unionists the leader of unionism had buckled and given ground, ground which should not have been given. On each occasion amongst the first to cry “Lundy” was Paisley himself. Each time when a unionist leader seemed like the defeated Shylock to say “Send the deed after me, And I will sign it” (Merchant of Venice IV, i) there was Paisley; seen by many as a rock, indeed a place of refuge. As once of my more lyrical friends once (almost blasphemously) put it “We are safe beneath Paisley’s wings.”

This time, however, it was different. It was Paisley who felt the weight of all the flattery combined with threats of Plan B. Jonathan Powell and others have recounted how Paisley was flattered by Blair, how Paisley gave Blair bible tracts for Euan Blair, how pleased Paisley was when the likes of George Bush telephoned him at the British government’s behest. It is also recounted that Paisley had numerous meetings with Blair without other DUP leaders. This was the very error I can remember Trimble saying that Jim Molyneaux committed with John Major and at least at the start of Trimble’s negotiations he always took the likes of John Taylor with him. It seems maybe that under this combination of flattery, charm and threats the old man buckled and bowed the knee to the agreement.

Certainly many previous unionist leaders have done much the same but it is hard to imagine Dr. Paisley in what rejectionist unionists would regard as his pomp being as receptive to that combination of flattery, bribery and bullying. Maybe age has wearied him and the years condemned: either that or he just wanted a place in history or the power or some combination of all these. I suspect no one other than Paisley (if even he) knows why he did his political somersault.

I will leave you with Prospero’s final words “As you from crimes would pardoned be, Let your indulgence set me free.” At the end of the play Prospero waits for the audience’s applause. Dr. Paisley has had much applause during his prolonged departure and I have no doubt he will get even more applause in the days to come but not always from the people who helped him in times past and not all of those who stood there when he boomed “Never, Never, Never, never.”

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.