Paisley and Prospero mark 2

This week Dr. Paisley left Stormont for the last time as an elected member of the Assembly. This is an update of a blog I did almost three years ago but I thought I would recycle it:

At the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero turns to the audience and says “Now my charms are all o’erthrown And what strength I have’s mine own.”
Now at the end, it seems, of his political career (though he does of course remain in the House of Lords) Dr. Paisley has received a long series of accolades. After he went into government with Sinn Fein he was lauded at the Boyne along with Bertie Ahern: this from the man who threw snowballs at Sean Lemass and denounced Terence O’Neill for meeting the then Taoiseach. Paisley was celebrated by both Tony Blair and George Bush. He has also previously received “Opposition Parliamentarian of the Year” (2007) and possibly most bizarrely “Oldie of the Year” (2008). Yet amongst some hard line unionists and possibly even some in his party his “charms are all o’erthrown.” The behaviour and comments of a number of Peter Robinson’s aides in front of the press at last year’s DUP conference is in stark contrast to the warm words from Peter Robinson today: as was Robinson’s deviating from his prepared text at that conference by omitting praise of Paisley.

A vast amount has been written about why Paisley went into the agreement four years ago. Some who support the agreement saw him as wishing to have a “positive” legacy, it has was even suggested that he felt he might soon meet his maker and wished to “redeem” himself. The first might have been be true but more likely betrays a failure to understand the world view of people like Paisley and latter shows a complete misunderstanding of fundamentalist Protestant theology.

More cynical voices suggested that Paisley was interested in power for himself alone and as such opposed every agreement until there was one which would leave him as First Minister. A number of commentators saw the change in the voting arrangements for the First Minister’s post as an attempt to ensure that unionists would have to make the DUP the largest party within unionism and hence give Paisley the first minister-ship lest it fall to Sinn Fein. The same issue of course still pertains in the coming elections.
Dr. Paisley himself seemed at times to veer between two alternative, though not necessarily mutually exclusive, reasons for going into power sharing with Sinn Fein. At times he said that this was a great deal for unionism and that his pledge to “Smash Sinn Fein” had been effectively achieved with IRA decommissioning and SF now supporting the police. Today in the News Letter that claim was expounded again:

“My message to them all was the same: Ulster would only have stable government if all parties irrespective of our differences, signed up to supporting the rule of law, the institutions of the state and the police.”

At other times the explanation has been somewhat less triumphant and he raised the spectre of Plan B which, we were told, would result in defacto joint sovereignty.
Unionist opponents of the DUP have tended to be most suspicious of these Paisley explanations; most anti agreement unionists would probably accept that St. Andrews is an advance over the Belfast Agreement. However, this advance is seen as a small incremental advance and nowhere near the renegotiation which the DUP appeared to be seeking five years and more ago when they became the majority party within unionism and effectively took over negotiations on behalf of the unionist community.

Equally anti agreement unionists have been most sceptical of Paisley’s explanation of the dreaded Plan B. Jim Allister pointed out that Paisley never told him anything of the substance of this Plan B when he (Allister) was arguing against the agreement from within the DUP. Others have pointed out that Paisley was never one to waver before threats and blackmail from anywhere, including from the British Government. As such anti agreement unionists (often once amongst Dr. Paisley’s most ardent supporters) tend to feel that he was bewitched by the lust of power and was happy with an agreement which would make him leader. That analysis is shared by many pro agreement but anti DUP unionists. Trimble and his successors have all claimed that Dr. Paisley and the DUP were only interested in the DUP being in charge. In addition they tend to claim that St. Andrews was no real advance at all over the Belfast Agreement.

There some other partial explanations as well, however. Paisley denounced the previous compromises suggested by O’Neill, Faulkner after Sunningdale or Trimble after the Belfast Agreement. He even denounced Jim Molyneaux as “Judas.” On each of these occasions, however, Dr. Paisley was on the outside. On each occasion the leader or leaders of unionism (but not Paisley) had felt the full weight of the persuasion of the British government, often backed up by the weight of Irish, and United States governments’ opinion along with the international pressure for a “solution”. On each of those occasions according to hard line unionists the leader of unionism had buckled and given ground; ground which should not have been given. On each occasion amongst the first to cry “Lundy” was Paisley himself. Each time when a unionist leader seemed like the defeated Shylock to say “Send the deed after me, And I will sign it” (Merchant of Venice IV, i) there was Paisley; seen by many as a rock, indeed a place of refuge. As once of my more lyrical friends once (almost blasphemously) put it “We are safe beneath Paisley’s wings.”

Paisley was (and is) a man with a pretty instinctive grasp of a large proportion of the unionist psyche and is also a quite brilliant orator; not to mention a seriously regarded theologian in fundamentalist circles. However, he had little track record as a negotiator: he had usually either been kept out of negotiations or had left them after denouncing an attempt by the UUP to “sell Ulster out”. With St. Andrews, however, it was different. It was Paisley who had to deal with the undoubted negotiating prowess of that least honest “pretty straight sort of guy” along with his assorted henchmen. It was Paisley who felt the weight of all the flattery combined with threats of Plan B. Jonathan Powell and others have recounted how Paisley was flattered by Blair; how Paisley gave Blair bible tracts for Euan Blair; how pleased Paisley was when the likes of George Bush telephoned him at the British government’s behest. It is also recounted that Paisley had numerous meetings with Blair without other DUP leaders. This was the very error Trimble said that Jim Molyneaux committed with John Major and at least at the start of Trimble’s negotiations he always took the likes of John Taylor with him. It seems maybe that under this combination of flattery, charm and threats the old man was outclassed, buckled and bowed the knee if not to Baal, at least to the agreement.

Certainly many previous unionist leaders have done much the same but it is hard to imagine Dr. Paisley in what rejectionist unionists would regard as his pomp being as receptive to that combination of flattery, bribery and bullying. Maybe even four years ago age had wearied him and the years condemned: either that or he just wanted a place in history, or the power, or some combination of all these. I suspect no one other than Paisley (if even he) knows why he did his political somersault.

I will leave you with Prospero’s final words “As you from crimes would pardoned be, Let your indulgence set me free.” At the end of the play Prospero waits for the audience’s applause. Dr. Paisley has had much applause during his prolonged departure which has now gone on for practically three years and I have no doubt he will get even more applause in the days to come but not always from the people who helped him in times past and not all of those who stood there in wrapped attention when he boomed “Never, Never, Never, never.”

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.