Ian Paisley made a final, final curtain call at PMQs which he obviously knew would produce a fulsome tribute from Gordon Brown. How very different the verdict would have been, had he died of that illness in 2004. Forty years ago he arrived in a Commons which treated him warily as an interesting specimen that might bite. From the start though, he realised his more extravagant buffooneries would be counter productive there and rapidly found himself taken at something like face value. I thought it would be interesting to compare then and now with a bit in the middle. Many things have changed; but its uncanny how much the same they sound.
Paisley made his maiden speech in a general Home Affairs debate shortly after Ted Heath cam to power in June 1970. Home Secretary Reginald Maudling had just returned from his first visit to what he notoriously called that bloody awful country. But it was the former Labour Home Secretary Jim Callaghan who had made a notable visit the previous September just after the introduction of the troops, who gave Paisley s election an elliptical and backhanded welcome.
“In an odd way, I welcome some of thoseI welcome all of thosewho have been returned from Northern Ireland to this House, because I believe that they will add an air of reality to our debates. Some of them, indeed, may show the House the deep extent of the divisions which exist in that country. It may be that we seem here to debate in an academic atmosphere, but there, as the Home Secretary will have seen, one is down to the naked reality of power politics where the gunman is a reality and not a shadow.
If the new Members who have come here point this out to us and show us this, they will do us a service. But they must understand, too, these new Members who come here in this way, whoever they are, that as long as Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, we shall insist that the same standards shall apply everywhere, that there shall not be a prerogative of one-party government, which has had a most deadening impact in Northern Ireland on the police, on the Civil Service and on the whole administration, that, because we are faced with a permanent one-party system, that shall not be allowed to deter us from insisting upon the standards which we know to be right.”
The general topic, equality under law, was grist to Paisleys mill. Bernadette Devlin MP had just been sentenced to six months in gaol for disorderly behaviour in Derry during the riots of August 1969. (Crown counsel Brian Hutton QC). Here was Paisley arguing for equal treatment (and against Bernadette getting bail!). Then as ever, his immediate enemy was the UUP.
“ .. It is not only Roman Catholics who have felt aggrieved concerning injustice in Northern Ireland but also many Protestant people who refused to go by the dictates of the Unionist Party and who set themselves up in opposition, constitutionally, against the Unionist Party. These people, too, have suffered from the same thing. I need not remind this House, for this House very well knows, that twice I have been behind prison bars. When I listened to what was said by the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland at the Dispatch Box the other evening I felt that it would not be very long before I, too, would be back behind prison bars.
I should like to make it clear to the House that, no matter what the Press may say and no matter what image may be painted of me, in my constituency both Roman Catholics and Protestants receive equal treatment from me as a Member of Parliament. It is because of this that the Unionist Party fear the Protestant Unionists more than they fear anyone else at the present time in the Province.
It is the dutyI need not tell hon. Membersof every Member of Parliament to treat all his constituents equally. That is something which the Unionist Party dread, for they would dread it if the Roman Catholics of the Province in a marginal constituency found out that a representative such as myself would give them the equal treatment which they ought to receive. I make this clear not only here today but also in the constituency.”
Proud as heE was of being behind prison bars he was almost as proud of being expelled from Stormont, Westminster and the European Parliament. In November 1993, his attitude to the embryonic peace process was the polar opposite of what it finally became. Here he reacts with fury to a dramatic revelation by the Secretary of State Sir Patrick Mayhew.
Sir Patrick Mayhew
“At the end of February this year, a message was received from the IRA leadership. It said: The conflict is over but we need your advice on how to bring it to a close. We wish to have an unannounced ceasefire in order to hold dialogue leading to peace. We cannot announce such a move as it will lead to confusion for the volunteers, because the press will misinterpret it as a surrender. We cannot meet Secretary of State’s public renunciation of violence, but it would be given privately as long as we were sure that we were not being tricked”. That message came from Martin McGuinness.”
The Secretary of State has rubbished any suggestion of such talks. He has rubbished anyone who dared, at a press conference, to put questions on that to him. When we met him and the Prime Minister in the past week, he rubbished the suggestion again and said that there was no such thing. The people of Northern Ireland today demand that the Secretary of State explains why he issued falsehoods himself, got officials to issue falsehoods and got Downing street to back up those falsehoods.
§ Madam Speaker
Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is being as restrained as he can be at this moment. However, falsehoods mean one thing to the Chairlies. I would be obliged if he could rephrase what he is saying.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
I would like to ask the Secretary of State a question that everyone in Northern Ireland is asking. Even if the message that he got in February, and to which he responded, said that the conflict was over, surely he would have known after one exchange that the conflict was not over. What has happened? Those talks were going on, but we had Warrington. The talks were going on while the bombing was going on in this city. Even when the bombing took place in the Shankill road, the lines were still open. Surely the Secretary of State cannot think that, after his behaviour, he can have any trust with the Northern Ireland people. If he wants a settlement, the only honourable thing that he can do is resign.
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
§ Madam Speaker
Order. I really must seek a withdrawal from the hon. Gentleman of the word “falsehood”. I am sure that he has tried to couch his words very carefully this afternoon, but I ask him to reflect for a moment while I am speaking so that he may withdraw and allow proper order in our exchanges and our questions. Dr. Paisley, I am sure that you will oblige.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
Because of the seriousness of the situation, I cannot oblige you, Madam Speaker.
§ Madam Speaker
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would reflect. It is very important to me and to the House that he is able to question the Secretary of State. I do not want to have to use the powers that are given to me by Standing Order at this time. I would ask him to reflect in all sincerity. I want him to be in the House to hear the exchanges. I ask him, as a long-standing Member of the House, senior statesman and parliamentarian, to oblige the House and the Chair by withdrawing the word “falsehood”. I should be most obliged if he would do so.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
I would like to stay in the House, but there are far too many issues in Northern Ireland that weigh on me at this time. The people of Northern Ireland would say to me, “Why did not you stand by what you said outside the House?”, and I stand by what I said. It was a falsehood: it was worse, it was a lie.
§ Madam Speaker
In accordance with the power given me by Standing Order No. 42, I order the hon. Member to withdraw immediately from the House for the remainder of this day’s sitting. [Interruption.] I am not naming him; I am using the Standing Order that is open to me, which is No. 42 and which requires the hon. Gentleman to withdraw from the precincts of the House for the remainder of this day’s sitting. ”
Today, Paisley made a rambling statement barely in question form, linking the latest Afghanistan tributes to the Troubles. He knew it was bound to elicit a final tribute from the Prime Minister. To the end he gloried in his potential for nuisance value, even though it has long been the merest shadow of its former self.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): This is the last time I will bother the House and the Prime Minister with a questionI am sure he is greatly relieved about that. I would like to associate myself and my colleagues with the words of condolence spoken in the House today. This is a sad and tragic hour in our nation, and rumours of war and wars are common. There is sorrow in hearts. Of course, people bury their dead; they put up their monument, but their heart is torn. I have been in too many houses like that in the north of Ireland not to know how deep the cuts are.
In view of the situation that we have here, and its sadness and its sorrow, and the dark shadow that lies upon the whole of our world today, I ask the Prime Minister to continue to give himself, as always, to the task of deliverance and victory and peaceand may it come speedily.
The Prime Minister: I think the whole House will want to pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for a long and distinguished career, not just in this House but in a number of forums. That includes his position as First Minister of Northern Ireland. I believe that the part he played in bringing the Unionist community togetherindeed, bringing the whole community together in Northern Irelandto ensure that we had devolution of power, and to ensure that the process of devolution of power was completed, will adorn the history books in many decades and centuries to come. On this day and on this occasion, I want the whole House to thank him for his service to the House and to the whole community.
And this time, it really may be finis.
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