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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty