Ian Paisley, a profile for Prospect Magazine from 2007…

A version of this article first appeared in the May 2007 edition of Prospect Magazine… It’s repliScreen Shot 2014-09-12 at 20.33.40cated here on the occasion of the death of Ian Paisley Senior.

Ian Paisley has been the single most disruptive figure in Northern Irish politics over the last 40 years. He has also been around longer than anyone else—the 81 year old has been a significant figure before, during and now after the Troubles. Yet at the end of March, the veto-wielding “Doctor No” agreed to end a conflict that has claimed almost 3,700 lives and stained British and Irish life for two generations—and to become first minister in a new Northern Ireland power-sharing executive in early May. As if to underline the painstaking political choreography that lay behind the final deal, it was clinched with a photo opportunity that took several senior civil servants into the small hours of the morning to arrange to the satisfaction of both Paisley’s Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin. A week later Paisley was in Dublin, warmly gripping the hands of the Irish taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

It was all very different back in the early 1960s, when Paisley—always a striking presence at 6’2” (and a quarter) with his booming voice and well-groomed appearance—was first emerging on the political scene. In those days the Irish republic was still introverted and poverty-stricken, with a per capita income almost one third below Northern Ireland—which had inherited most of the island’s industry after partition. At this time the north was still a relatively prosperous outpost of Britain, with its straight-laced, hard-working Protestant-unionist majority and still largely acquiescent, semi-excluded Catholic minority. The southern and northern prime ministers were recognised as social and economic modernisers. But when the taoiseach, Seán Lemass, travelled from Dublin to Belfast to meet Terence O’Neill in 1965, Paisley and his supporters assailed him with a flurry of snowballs.

Underwriting northern prosperity were the heavy engineering industries of shipbuilding and aircraft manufacture, manned almost exclusively by the Protestant working class. As Steve Bruce, in The Edge of the Union, notes, “Until the 1960s, Protestants saw themselves as superior. In so far as [they had] advantages, they merited them. Catholics were a joke. Their country was backward, their industry non-existent, and their farming hopelessly antiquated. Then, apparently out of nowhere, the Catholic minority acquired skilled, articulate politicians… who were young and clever and knew how to court public opinion.”

Paisley was widely seen, in Britain as well as Ireland, as the embodiment of Protestant supremacism. His attacks on liberal ecumenists like Donald Soper earned him a deeply negative reputation in London, which took him aback when he first arrived in Westminster, in 1970. Paisley’s belief in the superiority of his own tribe is a mix of the theological and the ethnic, but he has never been a personal bigot. Although he has never had close Catholic friends, throughout his time as an MP, he has enjoyed a reputation for good constituency work across both communities.

Paisley’s father James Kyle exerted a profound influence on him, both politically and religiously. In 1909, within a year of his “conversion to Christ” at the age of 17, this draper’s shop assistant had cleared out the family barn and began preaching to his own congregation, just as his son Ian would later go one step further and establish himself as head of his own church. Kyle’s influence was also political. As a member of Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), he was one of the few who signed the 1912 “solemn league and covenant” against Irish home rule in his own blood.

Paisley himself was born on 6th April 1926 in the religiously mixed city of Armagh. Shortly afterwards his father received a call to preach to a well-to-do Baptist church in Ballymena, in the heart of what became known as Ulster’s bible belt. But his anti-Popery and hellfire and brimstone did not go down well with the church deacons, and in 1932 he and his young family were asked to leave their comfortable manse in the centre of town. The young Paisley followed his father into the church, and inherited his taste for an “old tyme religion” that was beginning to look antiquated even back then.

His mentor, the fiery preacher WP Nicholson, once famously prayed that, “God would give [Paisley] a tongue like an old cow… and make this preacher a disturber of hell and the devil.” In 1946, at the age of just 20, Paisley was ordained as a minister. Five years later, in the wake of a split in a local Presbyterian church in Crossgar, he joined the newly established Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, and soon became its leader. The church had an evangelical aspect closer to Paisley’s own Baptist roots, but as so often in Northern Ireland, theology and social class were closely intertwined and the church saw itself as the voice of the respectable Protestant working class and lower middle class.

Paisley’s authority as a public figure initially came from his position as a clergyman. Roy Garland, now a liberal unionist commentator, was one of many who, back in the 1960s, came to hear Paisley preach and join his street protests. “I wasn’t enthralled by his preaching. I went to Paisley because I thought we were facing a conspiracy to overthrow Northern Ireland by the IRA, the southern government and elements in the British establishment… Given he was a man of the cloth, you took his word as gospel.”

Paisley’s entrance into politics, in the mid-1960s, coincided with the beginnings of an epic political battle over how unionism should respond to the claims for equal status from the fast-growing and increasingly assertive Catholic minority. The liberal unionist prime minister, Terence O’Neill, was, according to early Paisley biographer Patrick Marrinan, a man who Paisley considered “a foppish weakling… who would grant concessions to the Catholic minority and generally pursue a policy of appeasement.” For its part, the unionist establishment considered Paisley to be an unstable rabblerouser. They played cat and mouse for the rest of the 1960s: O’Neill, the old Etonian mouse; Paisley, the predatory big cat.

A suspicion of involvement in, or at least encouragement of, violence has lingered around Paisley throughout the Troubles. His first overt political act, during the 1964 general election, was to threaten to lead a march from Belfast city hall to remove an Irish tricolour, banned by law at the time, from the offices of the Republican party headquarters at the bottom of the Falls Road. This led to riots, which, according to Danny Morrison, a former director of publicity for Sinn Féin, played a critical role in politicising local republican youth, not least because a lot of them went to jail for the first time.

Two years later, a hitherto unknown loyalist gang killed a young Catholic barman called Peter Ward, in the Protestant Shankill Road area. In a communication to the press, they resurrected the name of Carson’s old Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). The slide towards murder and mayhem had begun several weeks earlier, when a politically uninvolved Catholic storeman called John Patrick Scullion was killed in what was first thought to have been a hit-and-run accident. The claim for his killing, which arrived only after his funeral, came from a “Captain William Johnston,” and added that war was now declared on the IRA.

Embarrassingly for Paisley, between these two murders he had lauded the name of the old UVF to a packed meeting in the Ulster Hall. However, when the UVF name was publicly tied to the Ward murder, he disowned it. One of those convicted of Ward’s murder, Hugh McClean, later stated that he was sorry he had “ever heard of that man Paisley, or decided to follow him.” Brian Feeney has voiced the unease felt by many Northern Irish Catholics towards Paisley: “It is very easy to move from attacking the beliefs of an individual church to attacking the individuals of that church, especially when you are saying that these people are threats to the political system.”

Paisley critics point to the more recent circumstantial evidence that after the Stormont elections of November 2003, when the DUP finally won a clear majority of the unionist vote, almost all Protestant paramilitary violence ceased. But there is no hard evidence that Paisley has ever had any role, directly or indirectly, in the murder campaigns of the loyalist paramilitary organisations. Steve Bruce notes, “Over the course of the Troubles, there have been something like 20,000 adult male members of the Free Presbyterian Church. I can find only six who have been accused of any kind of political violence.”

Paisley’s migration into full-time politics was initially cautious. It was his wife, Eileen, from a well-to-do family in east Belfast, who was first elected to office, as a councillor for the Protestant Unionist party—the immediate forerunner of Paisley’s modern Democratic Unionist party—in 1967. But by the time of the Stormont election in 1969, Paisley was a household figure. In this, his first ever political contest, also standing as a Protestant Unionist candidate, he took on the prime minister Terence O’Neill in Bannside and lost by just 1,414 votes.

When a humiliated O’Neill stepped down shortly afterwards, Paisley easily took his seat. A few months later, he added the Westminster seat of North Antrim to his portfolio. (Journalist Ed Moloney describes Paisley’s career as having been bookended by seeing off two O’Neills: first Terence O’Neill, and then the IRA’s “P O’Neill,” the fictional signatory of the IRA’s communiqués.)

In the 1950s and 1960s, most organised internal resistance to what was then called the “Unionist party”—the forerunner to today’s UUP—came from the non-sectarian Northern Ireland Labour party and a long thread of independent unionists, who, like Paisley, had often used the term “Protestant Unionist” to stand in elections. In September 1971, Paisley took the unprecedented step of founding his own separate party, the Democratic Unionist party, to represent the interests of working-class and fundamentalist Protestants. According to its first chair, Desmond Boal, it was to be “right wing in the sense of being strong on the constitutional issue, to the left on social issues.”

This was a period in which Paisley, uncharacteristically, seemed open to the possibility of new political directions. Cecil King, former chair of IPC and one of Paisley’s few friends within the London media, noted how he wavered between wanting to keep the status quo, visualising himself as the next prime minister of Northern Ireland, and even accepting a federal Ireland. As Dean Godson, David Trimble’s biographer, has put it: “The DUP was not so much a unionist party as a party of the Protestant interest.” If that interest was best served in a federal arrangement with the Irish republic, Paisley seemed ready at least to consider it.

Following an upsurge in violence, the Stormont parliament in 1972 was suspended and direct rule from Westminster introduced. The cross-class coalition of mainstream unionism, which had held since the 1920s, broke apart. In 1974, after the Ulster workers’ strike brought down the power-sharing executive set up after the Sunningdale talks, Paisley was able to exploit the consequent political vacuum. By now the growth spurt in the Free Presbyterian Church had tailed off, finally stabilising at about 12,000 members, who remain the core of the DUP today. But with IRA violence still ubiquitous in the late 1970s and early 1980s, especially in rural areas, the party continued to attract non-evangelical voters disillusioned with mainstream unionism. At the 1984 European election, Paisley was backed by one third (230,000 votes) of the Northern Ireland electorate.

The party achieved this wider appeal in part thanks to the young, grammar school-educated Peter Robinson. He won the Westminster seat of East Belfast at the age of 31 in 1979, and became Paisley’s deputy a year later. Paisley has always leant on junior partners, ready to slap them down if they threaten his authority. There has certainly been tension between Paisley and Robinson, but the latter can take most of the credit for turning the DUP into something more than a Paisley personality cult and laying its roots in the new Belfast working class.

In his recent book Ireland Since 1939, historian Henry Patterson explains: “The tensions between the original hard core of Paisleyism—the conservative fundamentalists of areas such as North Antrim—and Robinson’s more pragmatic, left-of-centre populism were easily enough contained through a combination of the integrating force of Paisley’s personality and the healing balm of electoral success.”

In the early 1980s, Paisley alone supported the Tory government’s ill-fated attempt to bring devolution back to Northern Ireland. When no agreement was forthcoming, Margaret Thatcher in 1985 signed the Anglo-Irish agreement and gave the Republic of Ireland a consultative role in the province’s affairs for the first time. In the interests of presenting a unified unionist opposition to the agreement, Paisley entered an electoral pact with the Ulster Unionists. The DUP suffered electorally, and the consequences were long-lasting: 12 years later, in the 1997 Westminster election, they took only two out of 12 unionist seats.

In all the attempts to end the conflict, the British government has insisted on two things—power-sharing and some form of Irish dimension—and ruled out two things: Irish unification and independence for Northern Ireland. In more recent years, the focus has switched to making the end to IRA violence irreversible. But at each of the main negotiations, something or someone has been missing. The Sunningdale agreement hammered out between the Unionist party and the SDLP at the end of 1973, is often regarded as the best opportunity to bring an early settlement, enshrined power-sharing and a ministerial Council of Ireland. But whilst the great and the good of those two parties were sequestered away in the Civil Service Staff College in deepest Berkshire, Paisley was left free reign on the local media and played a crucial role in destroying any public confidence in the resulting settlement.

The Good Friday agreement of April 1998 got further than any previous attempt. Sinn Féin was brought into executive power, and initiated several cross-border bodies. Paisley and Robinson publicly opposed the agreement, exploiting the difficulty David Trimble’s UUP faced in trying to convince the IRA to decommission, yet at the same time took their ministerial seats at Stormont.

Four years later, in 2002, the whole edifice came crashing down when it was alleged that an IRA spy ring had been operating inside Stormont. And at the 2003 Stormont election, after Trimble had failed to clinch a deal with Sinn Féin to secure transparent decommissioning from the IRA, Paisley’s DUP took 30 seats to the UUP’s 27, making it the leading electoral force in unionist politics for the first time. Not only had Paisley edged ahead of Trimble, but he had soaked up a small but unpredictable group of anti Agreement parties and in so doing brought the substantial party of the opposition under his direct control . It was not a huge margin, but it was enough for Paisley to claim that he was now the uncontested leader of the Protestant tribe.

Paisley has now confounded his critics by agreeing to coalition with his old enemies in Sinn Féin. On the face of it, he is simply finishing a deal that Trimble failed to close. Seamus Mallon of the moderate nationalist SDLP once described the Good Friday agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners.” So why did it take so long? Did Northern Ireland simply have to wait for Ian Paisley’s giant ego to be placed at the top of the political pile?

Context is all. Sunningdale took place in the wake of a vicious sectarian war which had seen the largest numbers of casualties of the Troubles. While much of middle-class unionism was ready to cut a deal even then, working-class Protestants were not. The 1998 agreement came after a period of relative peace. And while Sunningdale sought to cut out both extremes, the later agreement aimed to include them.

But what of that Paisley ego? Danny Morrison believes that Paisley’s rise to the leadership is the key to the deal. “I suspect deep down he didn’t want to do what he just did. But he had a problem in that he had taken over the leadership of unionism, and the responsibilities that come with it.” In other words, Paisley merely reflected a key strand of Protestant opinion until forced by his political position to lead it in the only direction it could go. Paisley’s son, Ian Jnr, puts it another way: “Given my father’s power as a leader, and the fact that he has ultimately been the unionist guard dog, the unionist insurance policy if you like for all those years… it was always going to be his call. If he was for it, even if it was tough, it would at least have stickability.”

Clifford Smyth, Paisley’s biographer and a former supporter, is less polite: “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.” Is this true? It is arguably the case that the cross-border aspects of the new deal are more deeply entrenched than in 1973 and could hasten Irish unification, something many people see as likely in the next 30 years. On the other hand, Sinn Féin has now accepted—after some difficulty with its own supporters—the policing and justice arrangements of the British state, and has closed down its army. These things were not on offer to David Trimble.

The economic background matters too. Northern Ireland, and even more so the rest of Ireland, has changed. Paisley is still a man of intense evangelical faith. But his 1960s role of defending Protestant jobs or preventing the north being overwhelmed by what seemed like a third world country over the border no longer apply. The loss of heavy industry, the introduction of fair employment legislation (as far back as 1976) and the growth of cross-border business with the booming republic have changed the ground rules. As Paisley’s voter base moved out of the working class-ghettos, it changed and widened; and Paisley’s scope for political manoeuvre grew with his base’s expanding, middle-class interests and incomes. In the meantime, the once feckless neighbours to the south have taken up recognisably (if secular) Protestant traits, and are now far richer than the Northern Irish. As the writer Andrew Greeley has noted, “If number of hours worked is a sign of the Protestant ethic, then Irish Catholics are the last Protestants in Europe.”

Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that there is something unfair about Paisley winning the laurels for a deal for which he has risked so little. A former adviser to David Trimble, Paul Bew, broadly welcomes the settlement, but has concerns about what kind of leadership the two parties of the former extremes can provide for the future: “It would surely have been better if Northern Ireland were proceeding on the basis of moderate, democratic nationalism in partnership with moderate democratic unionism, and that those people who were prepared to take political risks be the leaders of a new society, rather than those who made the least effort and only moved when they had both become kings of their own sectarian community.”

This deal has been a long time in the making, which may help to explain why the final formal conclusion has been greeted without great enthusiasm in the province. And it is possible, but unlikely, that it could still unravel. DUP hardliners may yet baulk at the way that Sinn Féin representatives on both sides of the border manipulate aspects of the deal—Jim Allister, the party’s sole MEP, has already quit the party in protest. But Paisley is now too committed to lead a revolt himself; indeed, if there is significant dissent, it is easier to imagine him following the path of Ariel Sharon and establishing a new centrist party out of DUP and UUP figures.

Paisley has his place in history, and he will not let it slip now. Having battled for 30 years to draw the majority of unionist support under his own party banner, and having found in Sinn Féin a strong opponent capable of ensuring a lasting peace, the pragmatic man, beneath the public caricature, is finally in a position to deliver his last great disruptive act on the Northern Irish political stage.

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  • Michael Henry

    Paisley entered Government with Sinn Fein with a smile a skip and a laugh after his disgraceful years of hatred-
    Paisley left Government a outcast from his DUP-a outcast from his Church-a outcast from his independent Orange Brethren – three strikes which broke his heart-
    Revenge is a dish best served cold-

  • mickfealty

    Quite. Though I had hoped the effort above would be worth more than a cheap piece of political hackery Mickey!

  • nilehenri

    excellent article mick. quietly impressed that it was written by yourself 😉

  • Niall Chapman

    Very good piece

  • Michael Henry

    I read the above effort like I read it years ago- have always thought of you has a political thinker / writer-you know politics whilst some others just write about the subject-

    With Paisley gone to Heaven and Robinson about to take his place / seat in the Lords ( maybe Paisleys seat )-does that leave Adams And McGuinness to be the leaders of politics here-

  • mickfealty

    Was that an #ouch moment there Nile? 😉 I had time to do a fair amount of lot of research.

  • tmitch57

    Very nice piece. Whose Paisley biography did you find most useful in writing it? I have the Bruce and original Moloney-Pollak bios as well as the second Moloney bio and the Dennis Cooke bio. I personally like the second Moloney bio best, but like some of the background that Bruce adds on the Evangelical side. So, if Robinson goes to the Lords, who takes over the DUP in Ulster? Dodds or Foster?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    A fine balanced piece Mick, telling when it was written, more telling now. Especially the long quote from Paul Bew. And cuts across much of the sentimentality that is flying about that feeds on a complete misunderstanding about Paisley’s motives in going into government with what he was still calling “Sinn Féin/IRA” in the interview just a short while back.

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pumM9jcVTqM&w=560&h=315%5D

  • Michael Henry

    ” who takes over the DUP ”

    Good Question twitch57- I think it will Sammy Wilson- The DUP would be to afraid of Dodds losing his MP seat to Gerry Kelly and Foster is x UUP-

    A good researched well written book can let you know more about a person than a 1000 TV interviews-

  • mickfealty

    I had a few earlier ones too which were really good on the (mostly psychological) battle between him and O’Neill, but the name of them escapes me. I had access to, Ian Paisley: Voice of Protestant Ulster by Clifford Smyth…

  • mickfealty

    I read that (and read it at the time) as post hoc rationale for his own actions. He had previously vehemently denied any such thing. And I’ve never seen any evidence of it happening or likely to happen.

    Optics, Optics, Optics, er, optics… 😉

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The thing is, a friend of mine gave every appearence of being a close friend of his, and I’ve been haering this stuff for quite a while. But that’s word of mouth. But then I hear so much that can’t be repeated in a society as litigious as ours………..

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Well-written piece, Mick.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    The only bit that’s dated is the ‘wealth’ of the Republic, which it turned out was something of an illusion. But otherwise it stands up well in 2014.

    Paisley did a lot of unintentional damage to unionism, I’m afraid. But I always felt when he said something on tv, he’d be right 50 per cent of the time and put it better than anyone else. But the other 50 per cent of the time he’d be so far off, it undermined the credibility of the good stuff.

    The best thing I can say about him is that he showed the ability to be both forgiving and pragmatic in his later years. But his attacks on Trimble in the wake of Good Friday were unfair – as shown by his own party’s subsequent shift of stance – and extremely damaging for unionism. I agree with a John Cushnahan – let’s not gloss over the fact that Northern Ireland was a worse place for the influence of Ian Paisley. That said, every death is a loss to a family and my heart goes out to them – it’s never easy, even when they’re old.

  • tmitch57

    Unfortunately Smyth’s book is quite expensive used at the moment. Maybe his publisher will release a new edition.

  • mickfealty

    I picked it up from Queens library since I had an honorary fellowship there at the time…

  • mickfealty

    Thing is that there was nowhere else for them or SF to go, including to a Plan B. This was the thing, and the only thing. Even putting energy into thinking about alternatives would have diffused concentration, energy and will.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I entirely agree, Mick, that “there was nowhere else for them or SF to go” because the agenda of the British government (and others) demanded that they co-operate, but I think this bears out Paisley’s contention that he was pushed, rather than jumped. My main concern is with the bizarre popular notion that Paisley had a road to Damascus conversion to Liberalism and pluralistic thinking. If my “source close to the man” is correct the leopard simply put on another, slightly transparent, overcoat to cover his spots. As someone sceptical of pure behaviourism, I think that is not sufficient to simply register an action because every action is coloured through with the actual motive, and chickens do come home to roost. So I think that the leaders deep ambivalence about the agreement to share power basically persuaded his followers that they only had to tell Englishmen that they were willing to co-operate. This is a bit of a simplification, but I’m going to end up with about 10,000 words if I try and unpack this in proper detail.

    But I’m still sending your piece to friends in the U.S. and Australia as the best explanation of the man. Thanks!

  • mickfealty

    That’s the point I was trying to get at in my Obit notice. He wasn’t ever a pluralist and nor is Martin. Big Ian thought he’d won, Martin being a generation younger still thinks he will.

    They both were to prepared to break people and all manner of stuff to make their point. Martin will break anything he has to prove the old man was doting when he called him ‘deputy’.

    We’ve all backed the ‘big mean bastards’ to bring us peace. No surprise then when it all goes a bit Pete Tong?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I entirely agree Mick. Through one side of my family, I knew some of the early members of the DUP and when these family members who have called me “Lundy” for most of my life deign to speak to me, I get this impression of someone simply content to be called First Minister on any terms.

    I was on the Coalisland march and remember the word coming back down the country roads that Paisley and his big gang was blocking the road up ahead. I still believe that Paisley’s picking a fight with NICRA effectively broke the possibility, from that day, of modern pluralism developing here and meant that the “big mean bastards’ got to call the shots for two generations. I sincerely hope that as the older generations pass out of the political arena, we can all begin to wise up and begin to pick up the scattered building blocks to rebuild some sanity. But it constantly galls me to hear people in England and the U.S. talk about Paisley’s mellowing into a pluralist, a vision that needs a few hundred miles distance, or a decent paypacket from the state to look at all true.

    And I’m posting links to the excellent obit notice for those of my friends in the U.S. who will be waking up over the next few hours. Again, thank you.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Paisley can take a lot of blame for ramping up tensions but I think it might be going too far to say his picking a fight with NICRA was the end of any chance of pluralist politics here. There were lots more chances than that – and lots more people who made bad choices.

    It was a great shame that NICRA was opposed as it was by Paisley and many unionists. I think also that there were predictable concerns people had about NICRA’s agenda (given its origins), which while not perhaps the reality from NICRA’s point of view, were not unreasonable suspicions to hold. NICRA could have been less dismissive of these worries, especially given unionists could not know what was actually going on within the civil rights movement. I think this side of the rise and fall of NICRA – its attitude towards potentially sympathetic but wary unionists – tends to be missed.

    What is clear is that Paisley’s confrontational approach towards NICRA – though he was a marginal voice within unionism at the time – didn’t help.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Well, MU, as someone there at the time and active in NICRA, it really beats me how you can claim that “NICRA could have been less dismissive of these worries” as we were all too aware that these worries were being grossly stimulated for party advantage (plus ça change…). And exactly how were we to address these worries when the entire face of grass roots Unionism was holding their ears and shouting “We can’t hear you!”

    And exactly what does “[Suspicions about] NICRA’s agenda (given its origins)…were not unreasonable suspicions to hold” actually mean? What “origins” were you referring to, and just how is the demand for fairness and justice “suspect”?

    This is the problem, you read a book, and you get the opinion of someone who was not there but researched it from someone who was, which is how, I imagine you are approaching this. The problem is that what the researcher is being told is told in the light of hindsight. If you’re implying that NICRA was a republican front or a Marxist coterie, those I met in Tyrone were simply local people trying to shed some honest light on just another piece of local sectarian jobbery such as will always be with us until someone begins to realise that for the good of everyone is for the good of them too! Sure, there were Marxists and maybe some active Republicans (although to the time of Coalisland I’d met no-one anywhere advocating violence) but there were also quite a few nice “Protestant” boys from QUB and Grammer School six forms too. No, these (“not unreasonable?”) suspicions were the fruit of simple laziness and all too often, the sort of mind block inability of political Unionists to conceive that some real change was needed if they wanted anyone else across the globe to not laugh uncontrollably at their claim to be in any meaningful sense “British”.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I agree with a lot of what you say about the reaction of unionist political leadership, which was pretty terrible. And of course you’re right many “nice Protestant boys” were involved in NICRA, including Paul Bew no less. I’m not arguing against NICRA as such, I’m just saying it’s quite possible that both NICRA had a point AND unionist suspicion of NICRA was justified.

    The origins I refer to, to quote the historian of NICRA Bob Purdie, include (and this is from Prof Richard English’s book “Armed Struggle”):
    “The initiative of setting up NICRA was very much that of [Roy] Johnston, [Anthony] Coughlan and the Dublin Wolfe Tone Society … It was the Dublin Wolfe Tone Society which suggested a civil rights campaign.” He also wrote that NICRA “had been founded as a direct result of an initiative taken by a section of the republican movement.”

    Gerry Adams has claimed, though with him it has to be taken with a pinch of salt, that the civil rights movement was “the creation of the republican leadership.” What is certain is that the IRA Chief of Staff was in on a meeting of Wolfe Tone societies in 1966 in which he pledged IRA support for a civil rights campaign.

    When the thirteen person committee was chosen upon NICRA’s inception in 1967, it included an IRA member and two Wolfe Tone Society representatives. Prof English – a highly dispassionate and respected historian btw and no apologist for unionist shortcomings – concludes:
    “There was, therefore, an intentional and personal link between old-IRA anti-unionism and the creation of the civil rights movement; and it was the agitation of the latter which (with admittedly idealistic intentions) spiralled Ulster into the sectarian violence from which the Provisional IRA emerged.”

    Now, unionists at the time should have been far-sighted enough to separate the legitimate issues being raised with some of the people involved. But at the same time, people who had to suffer IRA campaigns in the 20s, 40s and late 50s – and listen to the standard, (now thankfully abandoned) Irish nationalist narrative of NI having no right to exist – could hardly be expected to take NICRA at face value. And NICRA was less than forthcoming about its origins and links. We now know why. This doesn’t invalidate NICRA’s cause, of course not; but it does mean NICRA should have been bending over backwards to distance itself from nationalism. I’m afraid it just didn’t persuade enough people that it really had no agenda.

    Prof English is careful to say he doesn’t blame NICRA for starting the Troubles. But he says “In their intensification of sectarian division, the civil rights activists showed how … a movement defining itself in non- or even anti-sectarian terms could unwittingly deepen inter communal animosity.” He gives an example of NICRA’s Coughlan giving a speech at a Roger Casement commemoration (!) in 1969 saying the civil rights movement’s greatest achievement had been to unify and raise the moral of Catholics. Nothing wrong with raising Catholic morale of course, but if you pretend to be a cross-community movement concerned with civil rights, you can’t then identify yourself with one community in that way and expect to retain an air of neutrality. NICRA’s relationship with irredentist Irish nationalism was real, not a phantom conjured up by spurious “unionist fears” (that most patronising of phrases). And it was a tragic flaw in that otherwise laudable movement.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Oh and ‘British’ in inverted commas is sectarian – you need to withdraw that. Under the GFA it is “the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose …” (Constitutional Issues, 1(vi)).

    The key phrase is “and be accepted.” I hold everyone to that.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Well all I can say is that I was there, and the people I knew were simply seeking for a redress of blatant wrongs which any decent person would have supported them in. Please remember that the NICRA was a very fluid movement in the North, and yes, individuals had agendas and ran with them, but as an historian myself, one of the first things you discover is that every fact an historian states needs to be evaluated very carefully against the sources, and will never be the “final solution to the History problem”. And, as I said above, everyone is writing from hindsight and from later key events. this is a “fantasy football” image, I know, but just consider what would have happened if a sizable number of moderate Liberal Unionists had courageously climbed down from simply discussing fairness and fully supported the Benburb people? This would have made it impossible for any individuals “sinister” agenda to prosper. The blame firmly lies not only with “good men choosing not to act” but most particularly with those who leapt on “a movement defining itself in non- or even anti-sectarian terms” and chose to “deepen inter communal animosity” through their stoking up ancient animosities for political capitol on both sides, such as the late Baron Bannside, and those who would rush to be his opponents.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    MainlandUlsterman, my dear fellow, rather a case of “a Jew making a Jewish Joke”, as I am myself am usually counted as being from the “Protestant tradition” (with a little bit of Jewishness in there too!).

    Of course no sectarianism is intended even slightly, I’m simply stating the well known fact that a considerable number of British people who do not live in the six counties tend to wonder at the claim of “Britishness” by a portion of my fellow citizens who seemed, in the late 1960s, to have entirely different values on issues such as “democracy” and “civil rights”.

    I can categorically and unreservedly state that I have no personal problem whatsoever with anyone born with a claim on a British identity (or anyone passing the citizenship test) claiming all the rights and priviledges of Britishness and I entirely accept their moral and legal right to do so. However, last time I perused the published notes for the current citizenship test I noticed that Her Majesty’s Government would probably “fail” applications containing the kind of answers on what constitutes Britishness the people who faced down NICRA at Coalisland could reasonably be expected to have given if tested.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh dear, one gets so flustered when legally challenged, so I’d forgotten that my phrase “political Unionists [needed] to conceive that some real change was needed if they wanted anyone else across the globe to not laugh uncontrollably at their claim to be in any meaningful sense “British”,” did not in any way refer to my own personal opinions but to what I’ve noted of the opinions of my wide circle of friends across the U.K. and the United States primarily, but including friends in Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Brazil, Tasmania, New Zealand (South Island), Jamaica, Poland, France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and a few other European countries who have found the Britishness (no ” note) of Loyalists confusing to the point of laughter. Of course I did everything I could to explain a very complex situation to them well beyond what they might have been getting from The World Service. Some simply laughed even more…….

  • MainlandUlsterman

    You would hope decent people would have supported them. But my point was just that many other decent people’s reluctance to support them was not solely down to sectarianism or the protection of privilege as is sometimes portrayed.

    I’d widen my point in fact to say that unfair, illiberal Irish nationalist shibboleths (e.g. the assertion that NI’s right to self-determination was illegitimate and that the NI state was to be done away with) held onto by civil rights protestors fatally undermined that movement’s credibility with the wider NI public. Had they been more assiduous in disowning the old-school anti-NI-state rhetoric, they might have had a better chance of building the consensus they said they wanted.

    I think they wanted to have their cake and eat it – champion a noble cause apparently above the sectarian fray, yet also take sides against unionists. They should have instead got tough on those internally who sought to link civil rights issues to anti-unionism. While there was clearly some effort there from some to do that, would you say (as one present) they achieved anything like clear blue water?

    And if they didn’t achieve clear blue water, then unionists were surely right in viewing the civil rights movement as something to be wary of. It was doomed therefore because of its specifically nationalist origins and inability to escape those. Ordinary unionist people should not have been the enemy, but an audience to be persuaded – and deserved more reassurance and answers about where this was all going.

    To come back to Paisley: NICRA’s wilful naivety allowed people like Paisley to come across (to Protestants unsettled by what might lurk behind NICRA) as a sharp-eyed sentinel, cutting through the PR and uncovering darker truths beneath. Therein lay Paisley’s appeal to the wider unionist electorate – his commentary was a sceptical, pessimistic one, calling out the worst case scenario – and quite often events or subsequent revelations left him looking vindicated. NICRA weren’t the worst offenders by any means, but they made it too easy for people like Paisley to portray a liberal agenda as actually a dangerous one.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh dear, MainlandUlsterman, I always find myself reluctant to ask personal questions but I really have to ask “Where you there at the time, or is your analysis coming from what you have read?” It really comes down to this, are you talking from experience or from opinions formed from your reading of other peoples thoughts on the NICRA?

    History, especially if selectively used, tends to neatly tie up the enormous mess and confusion real humans create around them in anything they try to organise. Far, far too much can be inferred back from the safe distance of what is now nearly fifty years perspective. And a tremendous lot of what really happened to those of us who were there is lost. This was the sixties, freewheeling, make it up as you go along, with Kaftans and the Incredible String Band (Scots boys, both) somewhere in the background of all our lives. The hard faced Republicans just were not sitting in dark smoke filled rooms (oh, I forgot about the Salisbury Street Folk Evening of the Northern Ireland Labour Party Youth!) hatching evil “Ming the Merciless” style plans to wage bloody war against the blameless sons of William! At least this was not happening anywhere near me or anyone I was engaged with in NICRA or Peoples Democracy. Your picture of NICRA as a Nationalist blind, employed as a front to frog march a reluctant body of our fellow citizens into a diabolic United Ireland is a completely unrecognisable picture to what I remember! Instead there were lots of different opinions arguing different issues from a kaleidoscope of political ideas! And ANYONE could join in (and did). The refusal of even the Liberal Unionist conscience to begin to imagine that the five simple aims of the NICRA:

    1. To defend the basic freedoms of all citizens.
    2. To protect the rights of the individual.
    3. To highlight all possible abuses of power.
    4. To demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly and association.
    5. To inform the public of their lawful rights.

    Could lead to anything but their own enslavement to the Scarlet Beast of Rome (or at least fall into the totalitarian clutches of Jack Lynch) speaks of either wilful refusal to evaluate the evidence intelligently or an outright political naivety fostering such an inherent sense of unreality that was all too easily used by the future Baron Bannside to lay the foundations of what would make him in time “Master of All”. The degree to which sides within the NICRA were taken “against the Unionists” was the degree to which the Unionists insisted on “not an inch” to even slightly compromise their dominance with the demands of normal decency and the modern world they had found themselves in.

    Really, all you have to do is simply look at the aims of NICRA, look not at what some involved individuals proposed, but at what we all collectively agreed, and then tell me that the hysterical response from Unionism was even slightly justified. So please, please, stop forming your opinions from retrospective print analysis you seem to be using and even just go back to the contemporary press accounts to get a much more balanced picture of what really went on.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I make no apology for reading historians’ work on the matter (and on NI history generally) – none of which you have refuted – rather than relying on my own experiences alone. None of us was everywhere all the time – and I think claiming better knowledge because of who or what we are is a big problem with a lot of people’s belief they have the one and only possible perspective on events.

    As it happens I was born in 1969, so I have no direct experience of those events. What I would say from personal experience though is that I have a lot of knowledge growing up of the unionists of my parents’ generation – Alliance supporters in their case – who wanted reform, disliked the Unionist Party but also felt uneasy about some aspects of NICRA. I’m trying to do justice to them in a way by explaining why they felt that way – and why they can’t be written off as bigots or crazies, as you seem to be doing.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you for being so honest as to your underlying motive. A lot of my own life has been employed in trying to understand just why the fears and animosities that marred the pluralist possibilities ofthe late 1960s occured. If we met and spoke at greater length than these short impersonal interchanges, I could mabey explain how I do not necessarily write of those who do not agree with me “as bigots or crazies.” I’m specifically speaking of serious political Unionists who would never change, the sort who expected Catholics to walk in the street if they were on the footpath (I’ve seen it happen), ie: veritable “bigots and crazies”, some in my own family circle. And although the failure of the Unionist Liberal imagination to follow us in activly supporting the NICRA deeply saddens me, I realise that I’m personally another long tradition in my family, where, like my grandfather’s friend Frank Bigger, we had an ancestor in the intensly Liberal Second Belfast Volunteer company, who were in the foremost in pressing for Catholic emansipation in the 1780s. So trust of decent men on both sides was in my DNA, if not in my cousins. But this does not mean that I have contempt for those who were desperately, and traditionally, afraid of the motives of their fellow citizens, simply that I’m still really saddened at the loss of a golden opportunity.

    Its a decent, honourable thing to honour your parents’ evaluation of the NICRA. But they were not actually a part of it, and as with your own evaluation, it was an outsiders anxiety about something they had no first hand experience of. I can only say that my experience was of constant debate, constant discussion, and there were certainly active political liberals there, even some forward thinking young Unionists.

    Refuting your work in detail would be easy but would take considerably more than a few sentences, and I try poor Mick’s patience with my long, long postings (perhaps only the excellent Am Gobsmacht writes longer, and rather better, pieces). So I’ve answered impressionistically, I know. But I can only say that if you had been there, the bizarre conspiricy version of the motives of the NICRA you’ve been presenting would have you laughing too. Honestly!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Just a little support for me from Wikipedia;

    ” The form which NICRA took was determined by the coalition of forces which came together to create it, of which republicans were only one element. Civil rights were the banner to which republicans, nationalists, communists, socialists, liberals and the unaffiliated could rally.”

    Despite the fact that you can name Republicans involved in the first discussion of NICRA is simply a pointin time and development. Anyone involved soon watched it run away from any single interests control and become a force of nature. Historians, (I know, as one myself) tend to:

    1. Colour what they write from what they believe.
    2. single out facts to support this.

    The evaluation you are putting forward of events fails to take into account the actual life of the organisation and relies too heavily on the “here was Rommel and here was I” school of infallable leadership that montebank Montgomery of Alamein popularised on the tele in the 1960s. Real life is never so clean cut and you have only to look at the Steering Committee of NICRA to show how much more complex the ideas floating about within it actually were.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    You just reminded me of something that has always itched at the back of my mind regarding the perceived links between NICRA and republicans;

    As far back as I can remember (not very far) republicans have always had the inability to say ‘Northern Ireland’ to the extent that they remind me of Kryten from Red Dwarf trying to swear:

    So, given that there was a ‘Northern Ireland’ in NICRA this brings some thoughts to the fore:

    1/ Republicans didn’t really have an issue saying ‘smeg -head’ sorry, I mean ‘Northern Ireland’ back then


    2/ Republicans didn’t have THAT much influence on NIcra after all


    3/ All of the above

    What’s your recollections of the time?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Hiya AG! Me, I’d go for 2, without any “call a friend” (I haven’t any left).

    Of course there were Republicans in NICRA. After all it was created to balance out the “we won in1922 for good” mentality of the old Unionist establishment until recently run by the Fermanagh Mafia and simmering under Terry O’Neill’s attempts to drag them into teh swinging sixties. But NICRA as a whole was definitely an actual “Civil Rights Movement” looking out of the wee goldfish bowl into that big scary world where no-one remembers 1690 except as part of a telephone number. The real problem is that MainlandUlsterman (I used “MU”, until the shade of Jimmie Churchwarden and his Ancient Civilisation of MU made me aware using “MU” had neanderthal contexts, and I did not want, even so obscurely, to suggest any personal insult) is using historians hungry to line plastic ducks up in a row and attribute some directing motive to a small portion of the NICRA debate. He’s also being rather selective, I feel, in how he is deploying the material they present. NICRA was all much more complex and fluid than he is willing to allow. Good grief, even the chairman at the time of the Conservitive and Unionist Association at QUB, Robin Cole, was involved with us wannabee “V for Vendetta” dissolute types, as MainlandUlsterman might easily have noted from one of his quoted sources (Purdie). And there were many more like him I could list. We were a very broad church before Paisley ensured that the walls came up and the issue of community protection drowned out the earlier dominant theme of complex outward looking pluralism. It really does not help to pick out one or two committee members, pretty obvious “stakeholders” in any critique of the old Unionist regime and welcome as such, and to cat call us all as conspiritors smoothing the road for a physical force future. And I’d like him to set out just how we could have been more open and accomodating than we were!

    But, yeah, 2!

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Merci buckets Seaan.
    To (badly) quote the Sunday Times’ insight team regarding the matter of republicans in the movement:

    “…unionists overlooked the fact that republicans marching with the civil rights movement were out in the open and NOT republicans who were planting bombs….”
    Or words to that effect (talking about the early movement)
    It doesn’t take much for us lot to have our suspicions confirmed unfortunately.

    e.g. having one GAA club named after a dead terrorist and a few rebel nights is dead cert evidence that the GAA is to a man full of Provo lovers, yet when the same logic is applied to loyalist bands and their terrorist associations well, the same standard of prosecution is then deemed to be flimsy as it is singling out a ‘minority’ of bands who are not reflective of ‘greater band-dom’.

    Thanks for answering that, it is something that has caused numerous ‘Dime bar’ moments.

    UNIONIST MAN: “Republicans never say ‘Northern Ireland’!
    OBSERVER: “Interesting. What else have they done?”
    UNIONIST MAN: “They formed NICRA as a smoke screen to kick start the troubles”
    OBSERVER: “What does ‘NICRA’ stand for?”
    UNIONIST MAN: ” Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association”
    OBSERVER: “Republicans named it after ‘Northern Ireland’?”
    UNIONIST MAN: “Yes….”

  • Richard Jordan

    Mr. Fealty:

    Your article is great. However, it amazes me how the “snowball” incident is usually cited incorrectly. Paisley and his supporters did not throw them at Lemass – his visit was a surprise and his arrival was a secret – but at Jack Lynch in 1967.