Newspapers must be more than tomorrow’s chip paper…

I’ve just received a copy of David Gordon’s new book on the fall of the house of Paisley. Which is timely since it is published today. It’s one of our top recommendations in our online bookshop at Amazon. And today he’s the first of several guest writers to pick up on that theme I promised yesterday with some of his reflections of what political journalism is getting wrong through it’s own lack of rigour in questioning the twists, turns and inconsistencies of our political parties… It’s a great piece, but as he says at the bottom the point is not to soapbox but help ginger a much needed ‘heated debate’…By David Gordon

Is it time to reclaim political debate in Northern Ireland from the political class?

That’s one of the weightier questions that have been on my mind while writing The Fall of the House of Paisley and preparing for its publication this week. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the Stormont-centred political scene is too often missing the big picture.

Take the current power-playing over the devolution of policing and justice powers. How much of what’s going on up there has anything to do with actual policing issues, such as concerns about violent crime and anti-social behaviour?

Here’s a bigger question to throw out in the hope of kicking off a debate. To what extent did the “creative ambiguity” mindset of the peace process become a cover for the political class to say one thing and do another? The DUP’s gradual shift towards the 2007 devolution pact with Sinn Fein provides a fascinating case study. The commentariat largely went along with the official narrative about requiring Sinn Fein to back the PSNI.

In the real world, however, many grassroots Paisleyites saw the leader they once revered going against everything he had stood for. They had a point too.

Paisley did not oppose the Good Friday Agreement on the basis that republicans were not signed up to policing. His no campaign in 1998 was built on much more fundamental grounds, involving dogmatic opposition to the very idea of Sinn Fein Ministers. Arguments can be had about the relative merits of the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements.

But if it all boils down to tactics, circumstances and judgement calls, how do you explain all the extreme vitriol heaped onto Trimble and co? Taking a longer-term view, it should also be remembered that Paisley spent decades opposing power-sharing in principle, denouncing those who supported it as traitors, and claiming divine approval for his stance.

The DUP base could be forgiven for feeling confused in 2007 when power-sharing received the blessing of Paisley and, presumably, the Almighty as well. It’s natural and in some cases vital for politicians to change and adapt over time. But surely the Paisleyite heartland was entitled to a full and coherent explanation for the u-turn? It did not get one.

Instead there was chuckling with Martin McGuinness, coupled with an apparent belief in Paisley that he had achieved all he ever wanted. The divide between his party’s devolution deal “narrative” and the real world had consequences.

A section of the base rebelled, within the Free Presbyterian Church and at the Dromore by-election. This helped bring about the Fall of the House of Paisley. If politics remains little more than a private game between different sections of the political class, what are the chances of more general disenchantment growing in the great unwashed?

Developing a new agenda or fresh debate is not an easy task. Any discussion of politics among the Belfast chattering classes will invariably produce such phrases as “People will still vote for the same old parties” or “We get the politicians we deserve”. The reality is that the current Stormont set-up is heavily biased in favour of the status quo.

For a start, there’s the fortune shelled out by taxpayers to fund spin doctors, researchers, advice workers, constituency offices and other operations of the main parties. That provides an in-built advantage over potential rivals, courtesy of the public purse. And let’s not forget the communal designation of the Assembly, where the votes of those not categorised as unionist or nationalist can carry less weight.

Meanwhile, Stormont has little or no say on major policy areas like public spending and borrowing, taxation, benefits, pensions, foreign policy, defence etc.

I’m not saying the system has been deliberately fixed to favour the current political class. But it’s hard to imagine a better way of ensuring that politics is restricted to the same old ground, with the same old people making the same old sounds.

As Mrs Merton used to say, let’s have a heated debate.

  • jone

    “For a start, there’s the fortune shelled out by taxpayers to fund spin doctors, researchers, advice workers, constituency offices and other operations of the main parties. That provides an in-built advantage over potential rivals, courtesy of the public purse.”

    Surely this applies to Westminster, Dublin and most mature democracies?

    And who are these potential rivals?

  • Driftwood

    Surely this applies to Westminster, Dublin and most mature democracies?

    Indeed. But not a glorified parochial council like Stormont. This is more Stormonts’ league..

    A regional council with more padding and baubles and trinkets than many national parliaments. Pretending to be a government doesn’t make it so.

  • Have read a decent portion of the book and I must admit it moves along at a fair clip.

  • DC

    Devolution was supposed to bring government closer to the people and by that the issues affecting us here should be presented to us in such higher definition. Issues such as ASB, violent crimes and sexual offences for example should be extremely visible on the radar.

    Take policing and justice powers, it is a long-term interest we will need to have, it is vital, consideration should be given to prioritising it ASAP given that strategically it is needed so as long-term policies can be thought out. Yet in contrast, rather than it being pride of place it is being sacrificed for short-term electoral interests and short-term political pressures which the DUP is calculating that the more they can delay and obscure the issue the less it will take a hit. And it will take a hit due to the old ingrained narrative which DG mentions. But in terms of doing the right thing for the people here generally and for peace it is pointless, as it is a key ministry vital to the long-term success of society here if there is to be a concept of devolution of powers.

    The second thing debarring proper reasoned debate is the massive Christian Democratic political footprint in which all parties sit here – I mean all of them. With that comes this application of moral certainty – things are right and wrong only on moral grounds. The nuances in between getting ignored or kicked into touch and the application of moral principle over social-scientific reasoning is not accepted – it is in part a problem in Britain. The recent drugs debate is one, but in NI we are even further away and more out of touch.

    Take abortion, where people are not allowed to have an abortion here because of the right to life.

    However, people do not just have sex to procreate nowadays, there are in psychoanalytical terms lists of reasons why people have sex – one I was reading was to even humiliate the person!

    Now, we have our politicians taking a principled stance whenever the motives are not akin to the reasons they are wishing to sustain the unborn child.

    Which leads me on to the next problem using this moral certainty approach on behaviours and mindsets of the non-biblically aligned society here – a society most definitely of kilter with such moral principles as subscribed to with blind faith by our politicians. Let’s look at the recent comment by our pal Gregory Campbell, who wanted to bring back the death penalty. Perhaps if he and his party supported better sex education and abortion there might be a decrease in the number of persons committing murder as a result of an increase in the number of babies being born to committed parents, who actually want children out of love – than say being outnumbered by those accidentally having them through one of the many other reasons, not morally edifying, why the partners actually engaged in sex.

    One of the reasons stoking debate in Britain for example is to get a house, teens have kids too young the mother isn’t able or up to speed in life experience and educational achievement to bring the child up in a better way than she was – you end up having a society on the decline – ASB on the increase, more frustrated children, violence and unhappiness, alcoholism, drugs and bingo – back to Gregory’s problem of murder.

    The political class in Stormont today are there from the motivations of violence and murder, life has moved on, in fact it was one of the reasons why the DUP was out of sync as SF moved on. It ended the war, it moved with the peace and revised its strategy whereas the UUP were pinned back. Come 2007 none of Paisley political points could stick, there was no war anymore, no IRA, SF accepting devolution and best British and Irish relations in recent history.

    Basically the DUP made the wrong judgement calls while continually using the old arguments – that worked until they took up power – once again proving the flaws and inadequacies of believing in a thing called moral certainty.

  • Mick Fealty


    Let us know when you do your review… Be interested to know what you make of it.


    His point is that there is little completition within the system as it is, and the incumbent parties are so well finance by the state, it’s hard for rivals like the TUV to break into the conversation, never mind into positions of influence.

    But I think it’s the subtle collusion of the press with the ‘whatever-you-do-don’t-look-down-or-back’ routine that’s in his sights here along with the punishment of those who do not play along that’s helping to choke the life out of the MSM in the way it reports politics.

  • fair_deal

    “For a start, there’s the fortune shelled out by taxpayers to fund spin doctors, researchers, advice workers, constituency offices and other operations of the main parties. That provides an in-built advantage over potential rivals, courtesy of the public purse.”

    “His point is that there is little completition within the system as it is, and the incumbent parties are so well finance by the state”

    His point is balls. I’d honestly have credited David Gordon with more than enough wit to avoid such a dumb statement as this.

    1. It isn’t a fortune, that is hyperbole.
    2. The people want a democratic system and democracy has running costs.
    3. There are no shortage of parties in Northern Ireland so this barrier to entry seems more imaginary than real. Also look at the last election, the two parties that had the best performances where the TUV and Greens who had the least of this list of advantages. The DUP and UUP spent most heavily and the DUP vote dropped significantly and the UUP went nowhere. This is simply lifting an American argument about money and politics and not seeing the fundamental differences between the British and American systems.
    4. The alternatives to this are much worse – only those who can afford it go into politics or all governance is left in the hands of bureaucrats (the more senior of whom do much better from the public purse than ‘troughing’ ‘corrupt’ chose your insult of the day politicians) with puppet politicians with no source of alternative advice.

  • Mick Fealty


    Let’s agree that in individual cases, it’s not a lot. But collectively, the NI political class (in its broadest sense) is salaried and secure in way in which the MSM is not.

    That’s not a whinge btw, but a fact. It’s the corollary that’s corrosive though, not the thing itself.

  • David Gordon

    Just a couple of points, ref Fair Deal.
    What I’m trying to get at is the extent to which the same forces and the same issues dominate the political ground and what passes for debate here.
    The money is only part of that. Obviously, the fact that most of the big “affairs of state” are outside Stormont’s remit is a big factor. The key decisions there are taken by a New Labour Government without a NI vote to its name.
    As for money, I wasn’t talking about electoral spend. I’m referring to the way grants and office expenses are used to fund a mini-industry – large constituency offices and their staff, researchers, spin doctors, websites, newsletter distribution etc. That’s on top of the special advisers and other resources from being in government. Meanwhile, the Assembly grants to governing parties are against the principle of the equivalent Short Money scheme at Westminster, which is only for opposition parties. Giving all these publicly-funded resources to the ruling parties is surely bolstering their already entrenched position. Maybe, people want the current forces and communal routines to maintain their grip for ever. Others might want to create more space for new forces and thinking to emerge. It’s at least worth debating, surely?

  • 6countyprod

    The ‘Telly’ has always had it in for Dr Paisley, going back as far as 1966, if not before. It’s interesting that this new hit-book by a Belfast Telegraph reporter has such a prominent place in the online edition. Can’t teach an old dog new tricks, I suppose.

    The title is not very original either. From Terence O’Neill’s ‘Paisleyism is dead’, to John Taylor’s ‘Paisley’s star is waning’, people have been predicting the demise of the Paisley brand. A little premature, as usual.

  • Driftwood

    Don’t forget this cracker:

    Thursday 19 February 1981
    James Molyneaux, then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), dismissed as ‘ludicrous’ claims by Ian Paisley, then leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), that the UUP were conspiring to kill him.

    And of course the Almighty intervened to cause Brian Faulkner’s horse to bolt for offending ‘The Demon Doctor’.

    Fair deal, I wouldn’t mind seeing some figures. NI is roughly the same population as South Yorkshire, so running costs should be similar.

  • joeCanuck

    Do you really think that the brand isn’t dead, insofar as the Paisley’s are concerned?
    The original philosophy isn’t dead, of course, it’s thriving under the TUV label.

  • Rory Carr

    Nonsense, Driftwood, Faulkner’s death was not as a result of Divine intervention. He was thrown by his horse, Cannonball*, an equine Provo sleeper, while riding to hounds in 1977, a wee bit before Molyneaux’s dismissal of Paisley’s claims of a UUP plot to assassinate him I think.

    *Cannonball evaded capture and later re-emerged as a racehorse using the name ‘Shergar’. When that identity was blown in 1983 he disappeared once again. Recent rumors have been circulating that he has been operating under another assumed name, “Sea the Stars”, and has been spotted near Paris, but this cannot be confirmed.

  • sam

    Sounds like some of those around Jim want to stir things up a bit today

  • jone

    Way to kill a thread, my feline friend.

    Can someone not cut and paste Jim’s opus into a new thread?

  • Mick Fealty

    If people want to break embargoed speeches, can I suggest they do it on their own blog, not Slugger.

  • Panic, These Ones Likes It Up Them.

    Reply to Carsons Cat

    I would suggest you give a United Ireland a chance

    you would be happier there.

    That is a great piece for the promotion of a United Ireland.

    Certainly terrorists would have great difficulty getting into goverment in a United Ireland.

  • Belfast Gonzo

    *hastily closes window with cut and paste of Allister speech*

    Is what Davy’s talking about essentially institutionalised bribery – guaranteed stability (or at least a lack of conflict) bought at the expense of good governance, responsibility for some higher functions (like tax-raising powers) and proper democracy?

  • 6countyprod

    It’s interesting that the hit-piece isn’t even in the top ten ‘Most Viewed’ Telly articles, in spite of its prominent position and the link from Slugger. Doesn’t auger too well for the book, eh?

    Don’t waste your money folks! It’ll be selling for 99p in Bargain Books by Christmas.

  • whitevanman

    Very much judging a book by it’s cover, but why are there a load of Orangemen on it? Neither Jr. or Snr. Paisey are members as far as I’m aware.

  • granni trixie

    I remember around 1968/9? when working in teleads in the Tele, being surprised that Paisley was kept waiting for hour and a half to see the editor of the time. B. Tele was refusing to print his ad for one of his rallys. Reason I was so surprised was that when I applied for a job with BT, ‘everbody’ said ” a Catholic won’t get a job in Bairds Tele”. Infact Bairds had sold the tele ten years or more before to Thompson but the point is that the 60s were a time of change for the Tele and everyone, even if Catholics perceived it as “protestant”.

    I will buy and read David Gordons book with interest as I imagine that he will be ‘fair’ – unlike other kinds of biographers (particularly interested to see what he makes of the Paisley and the Maura Lyons affair, something that exercised everyone in W. Belfast at the time.

  • 6countyprod

    I have just clicked on the Slugger-Amazon link to have a wee look!

    The comment there: ‘David Gordon of the Belfast Telegraph is widely credited with the demise of Ian Paisley’ is the most ludicrous thing I have read in a long, long time.

    Objectivity out the window!

  • Mick Fealty

    A tad purple c6cp, I grant you. I’ve reworded it. Now, what about commenting on the article above rather than on a book I imagine you’ve not yet had time to read. 😉

  • Zwingli

    Old Paisley did the St St. Andrew’s deal for one major reason — his massive ego. He always wanted to be top dog and thought the DUP flock would meekly follow, and most of them did. This ridiculous answer he gave, that the Brits and the Irish wd impose “joint authority” is a canard. We wd just have had direct rule again with a mildly greener tinge if even that. His saying that he did the deed because his own “people” (the Prods only of course) wd have been badly treated etc is so much nonsense. He was also able to do the deal because till No-Plan-B-Allister popped up and gained some strength he had NO opposition to speak of. He had opposed the GFA, sniped at Trimble and then ended up doing fundamentally the same deal which Trimble supported and battled for. And SF ditched and undermined Trimble and tht they could work with the DUP. Well they have so far — and have little to show for it. Paisley Incorporated is also dying, thank God. Where would Little Paisley be without the Dad ? No judgment, arrogant, a sense of entitlement, no common sense, a smart aleck but never smart, just glib. And of course Eileen sent to the Lords as part of the pay-off by London. Really quite sickening all round. At least Edward Carson and James Craig had some class and credibility beyond NI. Paisley ? None. An embarassment to the massive majority of people in NI. Only cred with his own bigoted supporters and now that has been damaged. The idea that Paisley saw his “mortality” and did the deal also because of that is so much fantasy. As I said before, it was ego, ego all the way. Good for David Gordon for chronicling the tawdry reasons for the Paisley climb down.

  • Framer

    The DUP/SF deal would have been done months earlier had it not been for the Northern Bank job and then it was the influence of the Baroness who sealed it.

    Read her first (only?) speech in the Lords.

  • John O’Connell

    I think it unfortunate that the author does not ascribe a moral reason for Paisley’s change, even if it is something that he himself (Paisley) would prefer not to own up to.

    Paisley effectively repented of his past by accepting powersharing and bowing to the SDLP analysis. He has not changed all his views but sufficient to enable a clear and coherent author to define it as repentance.

    That can only relate to the discovery that his name comes out at 666 on my numeric alphabet, which was conveyed to him, and which sent a chill up his spine. His belief that God was on his side changed then.

    Anybody got a better explanation? I doubt it very much.

  • Zwingli

    John O’Connell: “repentance,” is your definition of why Paisley switched from NEVER having SF in government and then having them in government ?
    Only Godly men repent. But Ian Paisley ? No.
    Utter ego and top-doggism and cynical opportunism of the worst sort. Paisley and the Provos, together, made NI a byword for bigotry, sectarianism, neo fascism — not democracy. He preached a Gospel of Old Light and the darkest parts of the Old Testament; he didn’t speak of his fellow man and woman in the language of love and tolerance in the New Testament and specifically the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And who on earth in this day and age puts their faith in “666” and other nonsensical, utterly anti-intellectual claptrap, barring conspiracy theorists and Biblical literalists ? Only a paranoid and lunatic minority of intellectual fools believe in that bag of forlorn old tricks. For the moment, there are the Paisleys and their mediocre narrow fraternity and sorority, rejecting evolution despite all the evidence of science, saying being gay is a “choice” or “lifestyle” which can be put “right” by “nice little doctors” (and how insulting and bigoted that is). The sooner the Paisleys and many of the Bible thumping members of the DUP, and the bloody zealots of SF are put in the rubbish bin of history the better to achieve a pluralist NI. Like the Bourbons,these people have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Progress in NI comes dripping slow. Let’s not be “kind” to Ian Paisley who damaged so much of civil discourse between the communities. Just because he is old ? Forget it. Let him explain to his Maker why he behaved in such a destructive way. History will be kind to David Trimble, faults and all because he showed courage in sharing power, imperfect tho he was and
    tough though it was with Paisley stabbing him in the back and front. History’s verdict on Paisley will be rightly negative.

  • DC

    Amen to that.

  • John O’Connell


    That’s just a rant of an intellectual sort.

    Clearly Paisley himself feels that he is repenting or changing, if you like, bigotry to a better position.

    he didn’t speak of his fellow man and woman in the language of love and tolerance in the New Testament and specifically the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And who on earth in this day and age puts their faith in “666” and other nonsensical, utterly anti-intellectual claptrap, barring conspiracy theorists and Biblical literalists ?

    Jesus Christ is said to have dictatated through an angel the Book of Revelation to the apostle John. Do you think he was joking and it wasn’t to be used some day?

    That day has arrived for all the reasons you used to define Paisley and for the sake of putting Sinn Fein and the DUP into the dustbin of history as you desire.

    Be consistent if you are going to persist in commenting. Christ always gets his way in the end and the notion that that outrage alone is going to bring down these evil parties is just fanciful.

  • Zwingli

    Well, John McConnell, at least it’s a “rant” of the intellectual sort as opposed to a lot of conspiracy theory and discredited Biblical fantasy wrapped in paranoid speculation with no factual foundation or even the mildest theoretical respectability.
    So the Paisleys, especially the Old Gulderer, will tell the truth sooner or later ? Maybe like never, while breathing…..
    As for the 666 and Book of Revelation comments, this is what the great American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr had to say about Revelation: he saw Revelation as an evocative “symbolic truth,” at the center of which is “the truth of the symbol.” Scholars have been trying to make sense of this confusing book for centuries. Some simpler more conspiracy driven souls get into this daft “666” business with the “revelation” (lower case, please note) that, e.g., the letters in Saddam Hussein’s name (or Osama bin Laden’s, or Adolf Hitler’s, or whichever “leader” of the day add up to 666. This is a futile waste of time. At school, people used to joke that if you dialed 666 the coppers would come running upside down! Indeed there may be more chance of that result than any of the mad theorising of the dotty evangelicals and fundamentalists who proclaim such silliness.

  • Fabianus


    …the great American theologian…

    What does it actually mean to be a “great” theologian? Given that the “theo” of the “logy” is theory as opposed to fact, does the “great” signify a superior ability to lie and/or dissemble?

  • borderline


    It’s O’Connell, not McConnell.

    We used to have a McConnell on Slugger. Every bit as mad as O’Connell, in his own way. We also have a Conall who has his moments.

    As for a better theory for Paisley’s softening, well an ould Prod from these parts told me the wife, Eileen, got on to him. Told him he wasn’t going to live forever and the Catholics had been de-horned. So he softened up a bit.

  • Zwingli

    here is Reinhold Niebuhr’s biography, written by a a scholar at Boston University:
    A distinguished Christian and public intellectual who was a household name in the 20s through 50s and maybe even into the early 60s. He is associated with the Serenity Prayer, i.e. –
    God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    the courage to change the things I can,
    and the wisdom to know the difference.
    No waffler he, like poor old Rowan Williams but a brilliant preacher and robust thinker and above all a tolerant man who favoured civil public discourse and argued courteously but robustly with his intellectual opponents and rivals.
    The idea that Paisley is or was a theologian of any distinction is ludicrous. The only doctorate he has is an “honorary” won from an undistinguished US officially unaccredited college founded by fundamentalist Bob Jones. And no, I don’t think a doctorate is a prerequisite for Christian ministry of distinction but I do think some “book larnin'” should count for one’s cred as a theologian!

  • Fabianus


    Thank you for the link to Reinhold Niebuhr. I don’t doubt the man’s scholarship and intellect for a moment. Compared to him Paisley is a cretin.

    I was impressed by his championing of the rights of the Ford workers. A man ahead of his time. Wonder what he’d make of the sweat shops of the Far East. You know the ones I mean: they keep our high-street shops solvent.

    However the fact remains that to call Niebuhr a great theologian is a little like calling Isaac Newton a great astrologer.

    Niebuhr believed in “the supernatural inspiration of the Bible.” Surely that’s simply another way of describing, to use your own words, the “discredited Biblical fantasy wrapped in paranoid speculation with no factual foundation.”

    In other words John O’Connell’s fantasy is just as valid—read “preposterous”—as Niebuhr’s or indeed as the fantasy of anybody who considers the Bible to be the written word of a supernatural being.