Paisley must tell us more about how the Spirit is moving him

The conundrum over Ian Paisley’s reasons for cutting a political deal may never be fully answered, but the tributes that accompany each step he takes towards full retirement are fully justified. I’m becoming convinced that the change in Paisley has much deeper roots than seizing the right political moment. The joshing, evasive interview he gave to William Crawley at Queen’s and his Newsletter pronouncements give strong clues of something profounder than the ripening of a political strategy. They suggest a genuine change of heart towards people who are not only nationalists and republicans but Catholics. Paisley seems to have experienced something close to a Damascus conversion which coloured his political judgement and can’t be explained away as an old man looking after his legacy. Without it, it must be doubted that he would ever have concluded the St Andrew’s agreement. Mick is right to say that he was a churchman first and a politician second. Not all tin chapels go political; but deep conscientious opposition to their image of Catholicism lies at the heart of most of them, none more so than the little congregation founded in the village of Crossgar Co Down in the 1950s. Because Paisley’s career is so long like Michael Foot’s and the context has changed so remarkably, it’s easy for tribute payers to forget – or with their secular casts of mind never to know – that it was the religion that bred the politics. Paisley loved to remind us of the God of Wrath rather than the God of Love. As late as 2004 after the Leeds Castle talks, Paisley’s biblical “ sackcloth and ashes” language appeared to sink the process. Two years later he did the deal at St Andrew’s. He has yet to explain why he could do so in the absence of atonement by the IRA.

For all that his flock started out small (like Someone else’s?) he was quickly accepted by much of the Protestant rank and file at his own evaluation as the keeper of the Protestant conscience. Vatican 2 he depicted as a devious plot to gull naïve Protestants, just as the cry of civil rights masked rebellion. The hate word was “ecumenism.” The Church was authoritarian and expansionist, its people were dupes of the clergy. What he couldn’t see was that as his own Pope for far longer than any bishop of Rome, he was every bit as dogmatic, evoking endorsement from “Biblical truth” in the ranting pages of the Protestant Telegraph. Calvinist predestination by faith and the doctrine of the Elect cramp the human spirit every bit as much as anything in the Catholic magisterium. Later he seemed to see no contradiction between his flirtations with paramilitarism and equal justice for all and between his coat-trailing efforts to get arrested and respect for the rule of law. Paisley the prophet was always right.

The tricolour riots of 1964 were part of pattern which included the later demonstrations at the Presbyterian General Assembly against any gesture towards Catholics. They achieved their object. Rising from the frequently craven unionist and Protestant church establishment, Paisley smelt the fear – of their own right wing as well as of obstreperous Catholics. Time and again, they conceded moral advantage to him. He never ceased to exploit that fear until he had gained the leading role in unionism. “O’Neill Must Go” was his first and probably most important target, for it gave him the measure of his own capacity. The Paisley of that era would have hounded to extinction any Protestant politician or churchman who would have met a cardinal – (staggering to remember that none of them did) – never mind prayed with an IRA man of the fifties. As a politician he hung loose, as a mainly one man band, ready to sting and withdraw, switching tactics without the encumbrance of a bigger party with slower minds.

It’s disquieting to see this essential background being airbrushed out of history. Yet as history it should remain. I’m the last to recommend re-living it. Yet to understand Paisley’s change of heart, the religious background must be understood. I hope he will reveal much more of it, now that he has the time. It would be valuable for example if he gave his own account of the changes in the Catholic direction of travel from Ne Temere to the present day. The change seems greater in him than in the professions of the Church. Perhaps he thinks the laity are all good Protestants now. But the main contemporary interest in Paisley today lies in whether both sides will take inspiration from his intriguing if very costly journey towards peace of mind.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

Living History 1968-74

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