The Fall of the House of Paisley

As Christmas approaches and the invariably subtle and not so subtle fishing questions are asked from loved ones as to what type of gifts you might like, make sure that David Gordon’s The Fall of the House of Paisley
is name dropped so that you don’t miss a great read (or, failing that, just buy the darn thing yourself.)It has been suggested that the political and media class in the north of Ireland have yet to fully adapt to the changing demands of a normal political scene, appearing more comfortable in peace process mode and regurgitating the narratives which defined political discourse for forty years.

In this regard, David Gordon stands out from the crowd, and this book confirms his status as the pre eminent journalist of the post-Peace Process era. His dogged pursuit of the Sweeney-Paisley Junior story ultimately precipitated the first major political casualty of the devolution era, and the retelling of that story from start to finish forms a major theme of the book.

Through the pages of Gordon’s impressive book we get a picture of a cocky, self-assured Junior whose consistently aggressive and threatening tone with civil servants as transmitted through correspondences betrays one who clearly felt he had the whiff of infallibility about him (I know, plenty of irony in that one.)

But the book charts the demise of father, as well as son, Paisley. Gordon provides an insight into the mindset of the once loyal Free Presbyterian flock who ultimately would turn on the Leader. Having already delivered a crushing blow to the faithful flock by making the historic decision from St. Andrew’s to enter coalition alongside the Martin McGuinness-led Sinn Fein, a trio of episodes succeeded in fatally wounding Paisley within the Church in a revealing manner. Paisley’s warm words offered to Dana at the launch of her autobiography caused uproar due to her being a prominent catholic; his allegedly reconciliatory remarks made to Rev David Armstrong, once forced from his home by loyalists after he made the grave error of befriending the local catholic priest; and, finally, Paisley’s participation in a scout service in which a catholic priest was invited to say prayers.

For the record, Paisley vociferously denied apologising to Armstrong, claiming the newspaper which reported the story was ‘wicked,’ ‘salacious’ and ‘immoral.’ He also stated that he would have walked out of the scout service upon realising a catholic priest had a role in the service but for the fact that the scouts were about to pledge allegiance to the British Queen.

The incidents- and Paisley’s response- perfectly illustrate the failings of the DUP leadership which continue to plague the party and political process in general.

Gordon’s book is dripping with satire. After noting the findings of a preliminary enquiry by parliamentary standards commissioner, John Lyon, in which Paisley Jnr. was cleared following a public complaint about the public money paid to Junior as a parliamentary assistant, Gordon wryly notes:

“According to Lyon’s findings, Paisley Jnr was working 9 to 10 hours a week in his Commons related job. That is the equivalent of around a day per week- alongside the demands of his minister’s job and his own MLA constituency work. That would surely drain the energies and focus of any mere mortal, if not Paisley Jnr.”

Of the revelations that no fewer than six members of the Robinson family were in the employ of the party, Gordon noted the repeated warnings by Peter Robinson about the dependency culture and over bloated public service by remarking:

“Maybe a radical shift towards the public sector might even reach his household some day.”

After quoting from Martin McGuinness’ speech made at the New York Stock Market (NASDAQ), Gordon dryly observes:

“Sinn Fein’s revolutionary socialist rhetoric must have been left back home in Ireland.”

Gordon outlines the considerable lengths the Paisleys went to satisfy the desires of their fellow DUP member and businessman, Seymour Sweeney, and how the drip drip exposure of that relationship eroded confidence in the Paisley dynasty to the point where the unthinkable would occur: namely, Paisley Senior would fall victim to a political and religious coup.

The careful manner in which unknown senior party figures devised and executed the plot to remove Ian Paisley as leader is retold, and in years to come it will be fascinating to ultimately discover a copy of the to-date elusive resignation demand letter, not to mention finally find out who initiated the idea and actually penned the letter.

It is worth noting Gordon’s forensic trawl through many of the trenchant Paisley speeches, something he uses to convincingly argue the case that Ian Paisley’s fall from grace was a by-product of his failure to prepare the grassroots for compromise.

But the book is more interesting for what it tells us about where we are today.

Political unionism remains at a heart- head moment. At elite level it has finally recognised that a political dispensation which does not entail working alongside the political leaders of northern nationalism (read for that Sinn Fein) is not possible. Ian Paisley knew it, Peter Robinson even more so. In fact, Gordon’s book includes interesting observations from other political figures- including Seamus Mallon and Jim Allister- indicating that some believe the DUP decision to enter the Executive after the Good Friday Agreement was the first major sign that the party would do a deal with republicans in time.

But the full outworkings of that have not been explained to the grassroots, nor have they been properly thought out by the DUP’s leaders. The party’s enthusiastic adoption of the battle a day strategy has led to the largely accurate perception amongst nationalists and many unionists that the DUP has had the better of Sinn Fein at Stormont since devolution was restored in May 2007.

But it has also raised the expectations of many unionists unrealistically and also has meant that the party has failed to prepare the grassroots for the future of political give and take necessary to ensure the continued survival of the institutions. Crucially, this failure has meant the party remains exposed and vulnerable to an intelligent dissident unionist voice like Jim Allister.

The DUP remains most comfortable in conflict mode, even when the price of that has included equipping the dissident unionist champion, Jim Allister, with yet more ammunition to chip away at the DUP’s electoral base.

Gordon’s concluding chapters focus on Paisley’s legacy as viewed by allies and protagonists, old and new. Unsurprisingly, some conclude he has sold out on all he once believed in, whilst others reach diametrically opposite conclusions.

Yet at a time when the political process would appear to be increasingly held to ransom by the DUP’s anxiety over the electoral threat of the emerging Traditional Unionist Voice, Gordon’s summative remark that “..the ghost of Paisley past will be stalking politics for a while yet” would appear to be an accurate assessment.

Click here and here to read other pieces on David Gordon’s ‘The Fall of the House of Paisley,” avaiable from Gill and Macmillan.

Living History 1968-74

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