Ian Paisley: Skirmisher, preacher and agreeable chuckler…

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam            

The passing of Ian Paisley was always going to be a rough affair. He leaves a lot of enemies and not a little hurt behind. As Tim Stanley noted yesterday, it is almost impossible not to speak ill of him.

Many adored Paisley. He was to some what Pope John and JFK had been to many Irish Catholics in the 1960s and 70s, all rolled into one. Many followed him unto death. Certainly of his political opponents feared him. A lot more hated him for the fear and loathing he theatrically and self consciously stirred in them.

Perhaps those who loathed him most were those liberal unionists whose efforts to reform Northern Ireland were killed off by his fundamentalist No Surrender politics.

I was only five or six when I first heard him raise hackles in my family. We were caught in a traffic jam in the tiny of village of Dromara. The opening of a new ‘Paisley’s Church’ had brought the village to a near stand still.

I think what annoyed my parents most was ‘the big show in a small town’ act from a man who still had most of his real political show stoppers ahead of him. The Maura Lyons incident from a few years earlier had already stuck in their craw.

WP Nicholson, who’d first built the hall in Dromara, once prayed that God would give Paisley “a tongue like an old cow… and make this preacher a disturber of hell and the devil.” That’s one prayer you could say that did not go missing in the celestial post.

His oratorical style preceded the age of radio and television. In that respect it was of a piece with those old style trade unionist. Almost no one speaks like that these days. As Tom Paulin has noted he lived in a dangerous “17th-century world where religion and politics are synonymous.”

There was something gushing in him: an elemental ‘I Am’ with presence and personality, a raw energy, vigour and enthusiasm for the life and death of man from which he wrought so much meaning.

He was always starting new things, his church, several political parties, or short lived populist devices like the Third Force and Ulster Resistance.

For large parts of the year (often at politically convenient moments) he would take himself away from politics and throw himself into the expansion of his church which, tellingly perhaps, has waned as those once those considerable energies declined with age.

He had a tremendous psychological drive to prove himself to himself, often merely by throwing himself into the act of doing things. Outwardly at least, he seemed little given to introspection. His actions were often rash, more often than not forcing him into quick retraction, a habit which earned him the unflattering epithet of Grand Old Duke of York.

Probably his greatest strength lay in his refusal ever to accept defeat. He delighted in the serial defeat of his opponents, often foolishly and indecently so. He could also ride his own reversals (like the 1977 strike) renewing quickly and looking forward to whatever the next ‘big adventure’ would bring.

Denis Murray speaking yesterday on Radio Four’s Last Word programme, made two important points. Paraphrasing Alexander Pope, he remarked that Paisley was often ‘eager to wound, but afraid to strike’ a reference to various misadventures in loyalist paramilitarism.

And secondly, that it was his time, and in particular his association with John Hume in Europe that convinced him that endless confrontation was not the way forward.

This moderation was already visible in the broader conduct of the DUP during Jim Pryor’s ultimately failed rolling devolution project when it was the DUP who urged the UUP vainly to stick with it. It ended with the imposition of the Anglo Irish Agreement and that famous Never, Never, Never, never speech.

Politically he was a skirmisher attacking the enemy ahead of the front lines and firing from cover rather than in the open field. The invariable effect usually worsening the behaviour both of his own side and that of his grateful enemies.

And yet it was widely said at the time (now, no doubt, repeated for effect) that the raw fear which Paisley injected into the Catholic population at large was the best recruiting sergeant the IRA had. Each played off the other, and each prospered by the discord to which their rather destructive mutual gamesmanship gave effect.

Over time Ian Paisley deposed every single political leader of unionism until there was only himself left. His most positive achievement was the St Andrews Agreement where he insisted on ministerial recognition and support of the PSNI.

In this way Paisley’s Imprimatur sealed the deal for hard line loyalism by forcing Sinn Fein’s acceptance of the rule of law. And yet for all the semiotic importance of his olive branch triumph, his tenure in top office was woefully short.

It’s hard to say if the Ian Paisley of later years was able to reflect on the overall consequences of his earlier actions. We know from the Mallie interviews that he was bitter about the way he’d been dispatched from the leadership of church and party.

And yet there were also indications that he belatedly acknowledged the seminal importance of David Trimble’s work in leading unionism into the broad conciliatory framework of the Belfast Agreement.

For most of the Troubles I, like my parents before me, was no fan of Ian Paisley. As a teenager in the 70s his animated TV rows with Fitt and Hume scared me to the core. Not just for the effects his words had on me personally, but the fear of how they might move others more willing and eager to strike than him.

In the final analysis, there were two critical matters which brought Mr Paisley’s career to such a peaceable end. First was the fulfillment of his ambition to become the biggest man, the First Minister in Northern Ireland. And second was the taming of violent Republicanism.

It’s common now to express in hushed and reverend tones the miracle of his relationship with Martin McGuinness. But in retrospect their broader relationship had always been symbiotic. It was less that they overcame the religion and politics that divided them so much that they shared a native fundamentalism.

In public at least he seemed to love his ‘deputy’, and if McGuinness resented the no doubt deliberate slight he rarely showed it. Like the eponymous creatures in David McKie’s book they were two monsters reconciled

They each walked into the middle of the mess they had made to watch the arrival of the night and the departure of the day together.

‘That was rather fun’, giggled the first monster. ‘Yes, wasn’t it’, chuckled the second. ‘Pity about the mountain.’

Paisley had no use for irony, or post-modern angst. He had the religious and political certainty of a child in his own morality. He reviled the relativism of contemporary Ulster almost as much as the doings of the Pope in Rome.

To this day many believe that the stormy metaphors he threw (usually with bitter and wounding humour) from his broad pulpit in the Martyrs Memorial or the flatback truck of a political campaign were as culpable for the death and destruction as the direct actions of his implacable opponents in the IRA.

That’s a matter better left to the historian than the obit writer.

The man I came to know in the last decade of his life was a frail whisp of the monumental dictator of my younger days. And yet he was the same man who’d done more than any other to put an end to hopes of reform before the angry flames of thwarted revolution engulfed us.

Perhaps it is his long obstruction of such modest ambition that continues to rile and hurt the most about the Big Man’s legacy. Certainly what came afterwards was every bit as troubling as Yeats expressed it many years before, “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned”.

That perhaps, and his awful ‘tongue of an old cow’ humour…

“We’re not singing about the mortuary. We’re not singing about the old undertaker and the corpse. We’re singing about heaven, hallelujah!”

– Ian Paisley


  • streetlegal

    Enough already – much nicer to remember Donald Sinden.

  • mickfealty

    I’ve been refuging in #IndyRef land so I missed most of it. I consider it a long standing duty finally completed. Sorry for burdening you.

  • Michael Henry

    I wonder if Paisley ever hated or even knew what hate was- it was all acting to the crowds who fell for it- When Paisley could not shout no more for the crowds he chuckled for them-I would say the laughing Paisley was glad to be himself and he could walk away from the monster role that he had painted for himself-

    God and the Paisley God pretender are having a good laugh in Heaven- well played big fellow-

  • Sergiogiorgio

    I haven’t read the reactions in detail but would I be right in thinking the “leadership” of the DUP have been a little less forthcoming in their reminisces of Big Ian than Martin McGuiness. The irony should not be lost on unionism and particularly the DUP, that the party he moulded to his own image have turned their back on him in life, but also in death. He’s due his place in history, mostly bad, but some good. Robinson et al will merit nothing more than a footnote at their passing.

    My condolences to his wife and family.

  • Peter Mackenzie

    Mick , a very thoughtful obit, perhaps because I felt that even though his impact was always negative and he thwarted attempts by moderate forward thinking Protestants he deserved more than either a one line note of distain or a fawning poem of adulation

  • mickfealty

    Thing is Peter if you ever met him one to one you could not help but be bowled over by his genuine compassion and charm. And when you write about him you do have to be true to that. The trouble is that that was never the end of it.

    The Provos in fact proved him right in the eyes of his supporters. Martin and Gerry where just two men who helped to destroy the commercial heart of their own native cities were in Civil Rights marches and either already physical force Republicans or quickly became one.

    On the other hand, they were helped immeasurably by his determination to lead a grassroots revolt against O’Neill’s aristocratic liberal reforms. Roots that had long been untended and untested in the Craigavon and Brookeborough years.

    By describing a far larger enemy than actually existed (Fitt was his sectarian target in West Belfast, just as Dodds now is for SF in North) in order to deliberately play up the animus of the crowd against the wider Catholic population he helped to alienate far more from the British state than the Provos ever could under their own steam.

    This, I am convinced, is why he remained hated even by some on the extreme right of Unionism. Mainstream Unionism was also responding not out of compassion but out of enlightened self interest and to the weakness he was creating on their own political flank.

    As a public figure most of us who did not love him had little else to do but hate him. He sort of gave us no choice. But I baulk at the idea that his demagogic simplification alone was responsible for all 3600 deaths. They were too many gleefully disappearing gunmen running about the place doing their foul deeds for that. Whatever moral agency it had when it began was shot through by the time it finished.

  • Michael Henry

    ” Martin and Gerry were just two men who helped to destroy the commercial heart of their own native city’s “-

    WTF- Belfast and Derry are two thriving city’s and the people who live there are proud of their homes- Sinn Fein helped those city’s become brilliant- those city’s are part of our future and are far from being destroyed-

    ” ( Fitt was his sectarian target in West Belfast just as Dodds now is for SF in North ) “-

    WTF-So because Sinn Fein might have a change of winning that election in North Belfast next year it all of a sudden becomes sectarian – If Fianna Fáil ever stand for elections against Unionists in the six counties will you be calling them Sectarian -or will you become sectarian by supporting Fianna Fáil in those elections-

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh dear, MH, anyone who remembers the rich late Victorian architecture of Belfast in the 1960s, the happy weekend crowds of those years or who bummed around Smithfield or the various left-wing venues then will horselaugh at “Belfast and Derry are two thriving cities and the people who live there are proud of their homes – Sinn Fein helped those city’s become brilliant – those city’s are part of our future and are far from being destroyed.”

    The entire heart has been ripped out of the cities. I was cutting a film in Stockholm in the 1990s and marvelled at an urban centre not subjected to the war destruction of other European cities. The mellow richness of uninterrupted cultural development over centuries was a palpable atmosphere. The wrecking of both Derry and Belfast, the profound architectural loss, made up since the GFA with some ugly and expensive short-term glass and lego, and the slush through of English hand-out money to fund every home having its own four-wheel drive can hardly be described as “brilliant”. The cultural loss to both towns is immense, let alone the creation of a state of affairs where about 70% of our local economy directly or indirectly requires the continuation of the English dole. The wicked state of affairs here in 1968 demanded serious redress, but thirty years of pretty ineffective mayhem has simply put us into a situation that could have been constructed back then with a little political sophistication. Irish-Ireland as mediated through the Belfast Theosophist James Cousins, taught Ghandi his technique, its a pity no-one recognised the power of non-violence to move mountains.


  • mickfealty

    You never worked in Robbs before it was burned to the ground then Mickey? Between them the Ra and loyalists hit parts the Luftwaffe never got.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “WTF- Belfast and Derry are two thriving city’s and the people who live there are proud of their homes- Sinn Fein helped those city’s become brilliant- those city’s are part of our future and are far from being destroyed-”

    That is one of the most detached statements I’ve ever read on S O’T.

    I’m sure the city elders of places like Amsterdam and Bruges are jealous that they never thought to preserve their cities by means of incendiary devices and blast bombs…

    “Geert, the town hall and city square are starting to look run down, what shall we do?”

    “Easy Matthijs, simply place a few car bombs in the square, burn down the town hall, expel or extort small businessmen and reduce the economy to a purely government service dependent one, the place will be looking fantash-tick in no time”

    “Excellent Geert, the Hanseatic League would have been jealous!!”

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    And developers are mopping up some of the survivors….