“Well, my reading of the matter is that in the political world you should have the ability to work together with people who have other views. I have worked with the Sinn Féiners and I was accused by many people on my side of being a traitor and all that, but that doesn’t worry me at all. I was always of the opinion that we could find a solution to our problems here by people realising that they couldn’t have all that they wanted.”
Paisley stood against O’Neill, the mild reformer, in a Stormont election and eventually did for him. I wondered if he found it ironic that, 40 years later, he had found himself heading a government that in its radical composition, its need to satisfy Republican demands, went well beyond anything O’Neill could have dreamed of.
“Well, that is true, but then again, I mean, I didn’t need to surrender any of my principles to do that. We had put on us by the British government a form of government that is not democratic [direct rule]. Do you continue in a state of having no say in your own country or are you prepared – not to sell your principles but to share power with people who accept the basis of democracy? I stood out – that I could not sit in a government until that government, all of them, accepted the rule of law and accepted the citizen’s responsibility to give information about terrorist activity to the police.”
Nobody in London thought Sinn Féin would buy that. Paisley said that one day Tony Blair had called him seven or eight times to tell him he had to give in. “I said, ‘Look, please don’t ring me again, I don’t want to talk about this any more. I’ve told you there’s a basis for government – everybody must be obedient to the law.’ And eventually of course he gave in.”
He was chuckling again. “Of course, he’s a supreme actor.” (And also, it might be added, a superb soft soaper; under his watch, Paisley became a Privy Councillor and his wife was installed in the House of Lords.) He has a kind word for several politicians. John Hume and Gordon Brown are both decent men, though Brown has been too mean with Northern Irish subsidy.
Of course, it’s never been just about those “dreary steeples”..