Paisley’s peerage is not the final verdict

Most journalists are either too young or too indifferent by now to do other than nod towards  Ian Paisley’s long-trailed elevation to the red benches of the House of Lords. At 84 becoming a life peer is more of an honour than a job. With all the charm and civility they can both deploy, he and Eileen will become the Upper House’s perfect chuckle couple. Journalist Ed Moloney has produced two views of Paisley at different times; one with Andy Pollak in the 1980s. Here the largely forgotten Action Council strike is recalled, a personal defeat for Paisley from which he was immediately rescued by an inept and unsuccessful prosecution. The other is in Voices of the Grave, that testimony of opposing paramilitaries which passes scathing verdicts on the political leadership of the two extremes, reviewed here by Stephen Robinson in the Sunday Times.

It is strangely reassuring to find that terrorists have a healthy contempt for the politicians who justify or fail to condemn their actions. Hughes’s loathing for Adams when the latter opts for negotiation is matched by Ervine and his gang’s contempt for Ian Paisley and the other sectarian windbags in the Democratic Unionist party. It is awful to think that as a result of their cynical outmanoeuvring of Ulster’s moderate voices, the DUP and Sinn Fein/IRA have emerged triumphant to carve up the spoils and tax-free allowances of Northern Ireland’s politics.

It’s cool to have opinions like that these days, particularly when the cost of holding them is a lot lower than it used to be. Most of us without bloody records to defend will live with the moral ambiguities of uneasy peace and give the principals their due. But for as long Paisley and Adams remain on the scene in conditions of substantial personal denial, the issue of responsibility for the troubles remains an active though hopefully fading ingredient of our politics.

The British state has chosen to honour Paisley at the end of a long programme of post-dated Blairite buttering up of unionists for sticking with the peace process. History should not treat his elevation as an overall verdict on his whole public life. What to do about Adams? For all the controversyabout his record, in his own community his reputation is higher than Paisley’s in his. Yet Valhalla awaits him too one day. Somehow it’s hard to imagine him being offered or indeed accepting a retirement billet in the Seanad. The people will have to live with the paradox that those who enflamed and sustained so much pain so interminably were in the end the only ones who could end it.

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

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