Ian Paisley and his monumentally dictatorial personality at bay…

Commenting on O’Neill’s ‘bridge building’ policy in 1965 Ian Paisley said ‘Traitors are like bridges, they both go to the other side’

David McCann (@dmcbfs)

So last night Eamonn Mallie gave us a last opportunity to roughly assay the life of one Ian Richard Kyle Paisley before the obit writers get a hold of it. It may be a reflection of the ‘big man”s advancing age that his interviewer’s voice predominated over his.

A summer’s day it wasn’t. Paisley distrusted journalists most of his life. Just after my own first meeting with him I heard him remark to a colleague ‘don’t ever turn your back on them or they’ll bite you like a snake’.

To Mallie’s interrogative questioning his answers were short and always wary not to step on the many cracks left behind in the turbulent life of a lately (too lately many would say) reformed demagogue.

It’s probably too much to say that he despised journalists since there are reports on occasion of him enjoying their company late into the night and into the early morning in the much bombed Europa Hotel (he wasn’t the only one back then given to expressing their animus towards the liberal press).

But in a real, old fashioned, sense his power base was independent of the press. I read somewhere that a survey of public opinion by the University of Leicestershire put his support in 1966 at about 250,000, not far off his vote in the first European Parliament elections in 1979.

They were merely a conduit for communicating to the mass of his followership.

One of the problems any commentator has, but particularly those of us from the Catholic tradition (be it Roman or Anglo), is how to understand the relationship between the fanatical politician from the religious fundamentalist.

His evangelisation at the hands of his own Scottish born mother at the age of six, left him no intermediate space for reflection. As Tom Paulin recounted back in 1982 (h/t Peter Geoghegan) his own father’s teenage conversion back in 1908 had much of the grim ‘Old Light‘ muscle of his own later ministry:

…this is a 17th-century world where religion and politics are synonymous: on Easter Sunday 1908, the Puritan revolutionary rises out of the deep, having rejected friends, family, leisure and the private life. The old life of compromise, scepticism and individual personality is set aside in the moment of commitment. And that commitment is made out in the open air, as compared with, say, T.S. Eliot’s Anglican and institutional commitment which is a ‘moment in a draughty church at smokefall’.

Paulin went on to describe Paisley’s contempt for institutions that he was not the head of as something of a family trait, as illustrated when his father (Kyle Paisley)…

…broke with the Baptists because of their ecumenism and set up his own Independent Fundamentalist Church. The son has inherited this characteristic of breaking with established institutions and he has a Cromwellian scorn of formalism, an instinctive libertarianism which conceals, or creates, a monumentally dictatorial personality. It may be that the alternative to compromised institutions is a series of pyramids dedicated to the egotistical sublime, to his relentless monomania.

A few years back when ‘the Doc’ was being showered with sacramental approbation in the south I recall Newton Emerson arguing that the Irish love a ‘Big Man’ figure in their politicians. Perhaps it’s a search for someone who is bigger and harder than any of the institutions that make life ‘unfair’ for the smaller man.

That old black and white footage brought much of what made him such a big man back in the 1960s at times with dreadful clarity. The rising cadences of the bible preacher that in Obama or King sound calming, inspiring or reassuring to the liberal mind when voiced by Paisley releases loud discordant sirens in the same.

For which there will, no doubt when it comes to considering his legacy, be a reckoning to pay.


  • Barney

    “To Mallie’s interrogative questioning his answers were short”

    That made me laugh

  • son of sam

    Fionnuala O’Connor in her Irish News column today and additionally (along with Seamus Mallon) on the Sean O ‘ Rourke show this morning pointed out that ” proof from his own mouth that vanity has always been his main motivation is just another element leaderless unionists need to absorb”.This supposed “man of the people” was quick enough to secure peerages for his wife and himself and is now feted by London and Dublin.Sadly many of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland know to their cost the malign influence of Ian Paisley.Eugene Reavy still awaits an apology from this “man of God”.

  • Alias

    He’s more of the bigmouth than the archetypal big man. Take away the showman’s booming voice and bombastic opposition and what you’re left with is the little man in the interview.

  • Son of Strongbow

    When presented with the opportunity when has any local politician produced a mea culpa moment?

    Self-serving revisionism is the only ‘truth’ on offer. Everyone should reconcile themselves to that.

  • SDLP supporter

    I have profound, total and utter loathing for Paisley’s malign actions over decades.

    His interview last night is proof of Hannah Arendt’s remark that the personification of evil is often expressed in banality.

    Incredible to think that his admirer, Martin McGuinness, said:

    “I think he will be fondly remembered by the people of Ireland, North and South.”

    Not by me, he won’t.

  • Son of Sam, [11.38] O’Connor, both in her appraisal in ‘The View’ and her Irish News column today, sums up both Paisley and his sucessor as ‘leader’ of the party IP created, as small fry who [in Robinson’s case over Haass] wasted Haass’s time, to put it bluntly, since he had no intention of moving to compromise. Paisley wasted everyone’s time for 40 years. History will judge both men harshly. We on nationalist side owe a debt of gratitude to Paisley for, against the interest of his legacy, coming on tv against his better judgement, to finally admit unintentionally he was wrong all along.

  • 241934 john brennan

    When I first saw Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness doing their double act on TV, I referred to them as Lords Haw, and Hee Haw, but it was ‘The Chuckle Brothers’ that stuck.
    Perhaps John Hume got it right in the Ulster Scots dialect, when Paisley kept interrupting him in a TV debate – ‘You’re just an ignorant Gulpin.

  • streetlegal

    It is clear that Paisley and McGuinness were both ‘men of blood’.

  • Mick Fealty

    The “I don’t know if I actually said that…” is evident in his 1988 visit to Sue Lawley’s Desert Island…


    [Despite Lawley’s slowball delivery, it’s actually pretty revealing…]

  • Gopher

    I can only go by what my father told me, he never was distinguishable from any other street preacher until he hit upon sectarianism as a sermon. A proto shock jock, if he had not hit upon it someone else would. All the ingredients were there for the cocktail to be made none were unique especially not Paisley.

  • braniel unionist

    Why am I surprised that every contribution has been negative? Is nobody on this site big enough to concede that, in terms of affability and personal warmth, he was a candidate in a million? Not to mention, a genuine populist leader? Sadly, he would eventually be tricked by the lies of Blair with whom he prayed and read The Bible. GW Bush pretended to be his buddy. Maybe he needed true advisors to mark his friends on a scale of 1 to 7…!!

  • Mick Fealty

    I will concede that. I saw some of evidence of it in his church, and you also hear it in his interview with Sue Lawley. It was also Paisley who insisted (with the full force of the Bush administration’s State Dept behind him) that Martin Gerry and Co sign up to policing.

    It seems such a modest thing to have been asking for, but it put Blair and the Irish government into all manner of queer shapes trying to square it off with a SF leadership which had clear instructions from its own Ard Comhairle to leave them wriggle room.

    I have it on reasonably good authority that it was Paisley not Robinson who drew that particular line in the sand.

    Populism is what links him to other Irish politicians. And that takes a very high level of emotional intelligence. He gave the opposition to the Unionist establishment focus and brought a capacity to influence far above his capacity to wrangle an oppositionist mandate.

    Paisley though was at his best in opposition. Whatever the simmering resentments in the family he was not a great First Minister his age alone and fading energy let him do little more than stay upon his horse. In May 2007, in an interview with yours truly, Clifford Smyth likened him to El Cid strapped to the charger in order that the ‘troops’ would follow.

    Smyth also noted, “I have watched Paisley destroy other unionist leaders. And all for the sake of a deal that is much worse than any of those offered by the men he got rid of.”

    All of this is to ignore of course that in some ways the civic fury of the late 60s and early to mid 70s were in part a score settling exercise from the violent birth of Northern Ireland in the 20s; just over one generation earlier. Paisley did not single handedly create that smouldering insecurity as some in the Provisional movement would argue.

    The absence of a coherent and functional democratic oppositional voice helped boil a pot of resentment that in the end had few other choices but to burst out onto the street. By the mid 50s Paisley had applied and five or six years later was at the head of the Unionist opposition.

    I suppose we really ought not forget the lessons of history. You know, considering what they say about tragedy followed by farce.

  • Gopher

    Having watched the programme I can only ask why the BBC let two of the most disingenuous narcissists Northern Ireland have produced waste my license fee.

  • aquifer

    Paisley and the Provos, prize fighters beating up the poplace and shoving politicians around to show the Brits who was the biggest brute.

    The big men who tried to make us smaller, and we can now dangle them on a slip of paper at election time.

    Another miracle.

  • DC

    Terence O’Neill had the right words about Ulster being at the crossroads but the state of him speaking and the way he sounded he was always going to get roundly ignored – no emotional connection there at all, whereas Paisley…

    Watching Big Ian fail miserably to excuse some of his worst behaviour and actions in a failing body made it clear to the viewer that his unionist brand of politics was wide off the mark and wrong. I felt embarrassed listening to the way he got on and it must be an embarrassment for the DUP that everything they opposed was for nothing, all the trouble they created in the process & to deliver a worse deal and how bigoted they had to become to get to where they are, all of it has ruined the credibility of Unionist politics looking back.

    All this talk of ulster winning out over Rome and Big Ian as the God-like leader, what a load of shit, this was the alternative brand of unionist politics? Poor showing then and it looks evener poorer as the time passes. Especially where the DUP have ended up, they deserve to be kicked out of office, careerist wind up merchants who shouldn’t be allowed the privilege of office, given the bodies they walked over to get there. All because people believed big Ian as he spoke like God and did some very foolish stuff in his name and for his brand of politics.

    There’s a saying those that stir the pot should be made to lick the spoon, pity it didn’t apply to big Ian, instead he’s down getting spoon-fed his wee bowl of soup in Dublin.

    Do one Ian!

  • qwerty12345

    Nevermind Paisley, get a load of the reaction from the likes of Gregory Campbell to what the Doc had to say.

    Funny or what?

  • Sp12

    Do you have a link qwerty?

  • braniel unionist

    Let’s get back to the subject matter. Unlike Bernadette, and others, who have lived most of their life and learned nothing, Paisley has obviously got wiser with age. Decades later, it is hardly ‘contradictory’ to express a reflective view on Civil Rights and Bloody Sunday. Furthermore, Lord Kilclooney has put his Dublin/Monaghan remarks in context. The social networking reaction has been hysterical….. are there any ‘rational’ Paisley critics out there?

  • Sp12

    “Furthermore, Lord Kilclooney has put his Dublin/Monaghan remarks in context. The social networking reaction has been hysterical….. are there any ‘rational’ Paisley critics out there?”

    Today Lord Kilcooney stood up in the house of lords and ‘put in context’ Justin Welby’s remarks that Israel’s attitude to Palestinians is what brought about about twin bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that resulted in the deaths of 33 civilians, wounding 300 more.

    Rational enough for you?

  • aquifer

    His sectarian ranting distanced the British from Ulster, and his combination of Unionist politics with a declining religious block and paramilitaries has made the Union less secure.

    Politics is not a career for slow learners.

  • BluesJazz

    Captain O’Neill was right on the money:


    A war hero, as was his cousin, Major Chichester Clarke (both mentioned in dispatches with the Irish Guards at Normandy and Anzio respectively). Can’t seem to find Paisley’s war record, he was of military age. Maybe Eammon can enlighten us next week?

  • braniel unionist

    Personally, I think the Union is now more secure…

  • Mick Fealty


    Really? I thought this reflected well on Bernadette myself:

    The difference between herself and ‘the Doc’ is possibly that her political career burned short and bright and then largely returned to semi darkness. Paisley lived his through the inquirying light of politics and the press.

  • braniel unionist

    Maybe it is my prejudice, but she sounds so disingenuous…..in perpetuity, surely Paisley’s contribution will be of more value?

  • Mick Fealty

    I think her long virtual anonymity probably gives her more intellectual freedom to draw rather different conclusions from those she may have espoused along the way.

  • braniel unionist

    I think Ian Paisley was saying… Official Unionism discriminated against us all.

  • BluesJazz

    Aquifer is correct.
    Paisley never trusted (or even liked) the ‘Brits’. He despised every SoS , including Roy Mason-who went for the military/SAS route.
    And they despised him, as did the British population (and Army).
    Paisley was ‘British’ only in a Cromwellian way. Like a Hammer film Peter Cushing caricature. The SoS and GOC’s found him a loathsome character. I dare say the average (mainland) squaddie similar.
    So now we wait to hear how he despises his deputy dawg.
    At least Pinochet left with his honour intact.

  • braniel unionist

    Pinochet shot, tortured and murdered thousands of innocent people…. this thread is full of nutmegs…..

  • As to the specifics of the Voting System.
    Important to remember that it was not just about “the business” vote .
    Until 1969 we also had four seats at Queens University. Surely unfair also but I’m not entirely sure that academics in a civic forum is all that different.
    Likewise one man, one vote is obviously right….but so is the principle of votes being of equal value.
    Derry being the outstanding example where votes on the East Bank of the River Foyle counted for more than those on the West Bank.
    But have we really changed that much when 52,000 votes count for more than 94 ,000 and 92,000 if the majority of the votes are cast on the East Bank of the River Bann.

  • braniel unionist

    There was a full franchise in Stormont and Westminster elecions. But, not so in local elections. So, we had a civil war over the right to vote in a parish pump election? Just sayin.

  • Mick Fealty

    It was the housing issue that give it grit and grind, though the business vote was gone by 1967, and in fact Protestants were in the majority of those who suffered. And it’s estimated to have affected political outcomes in just one local authority: http://goo.gl/2tcNpa.

  • braniel unionist

    Paisley hated the establishment and the unionist elitism that betrayed us all. Maybe, in the fullness of time, all things will work together for good. But it hasn’t yet.

  • braniel unionist


  • IrelandNorth

    I well remember my mother way back in the 1960s, in the early days of black and white television, during one of the Rev gentleman’s tirades over this, that or the other saying with characteristic rural Irish charm: “Wouldn’t that fellah put the heart cross ways in ye!” (ie strike terror!). Ironically, the Redemptorists must have been challanged the Rev Drs fire and brimstone panache, since everyone though they held the patent. Good reality TV before the advent of the gogglebox, but a sinister side to it also. You can only bellow for so long, before your self righteousness oratorical expression plays havoc with your vocal cords. And yet, it’s difficiult not feel empathic for the elderly gentleman in the autumn of his years.