As Northern Ireland heads into an Assembly election that is surrounded by uncertainty and division, it may be informative to look back to the Assembly’s earliest days, when optimism and hopes for a new beginning were high. In my new book, I do just that.
It is November 1999 and Dr Ian Paisley – despite being an outspoken critic and opponent of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement – nominates himself to be Chairman of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s new Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development.
Dr Paisley is a very experienced public representative, but his challenge now is to introduce and operate Westminster-style ministerial accountability in a brand-new political setting. To succeed, he must give leadership and exercise influence well beyond his usual constituency, working with both allies (including his son, Ian Junior) and bitter enemies to agree coherent policy positions on often complex multi-sectoral issues.
Will Dr Paisley be a fair and inclusive advocate for all members of the committee? Can he work constructively with the SDLP minister and her officials – be a statesman even – or will he live down to some people’s expectations as a divisive and bigoted figure?
This book is the inside story of his 3-year tenure as Chair as seen through the eyes of an Assembly official (me) whom Dr Paisley comes to refer to as ‘Mister Clerk’. In it, I share my unique, behind-the-scenes, perspective of the Committee’s work, which is set against a backdrop of multiple crises, major events, internal wrangling and political point-scoring – some of which have clear parallels with present-day politics in Northern Ireland.
There are serious, and some lighter, moments described in the book, as many sides of Dr Paisley’s character come into play. The short extract below gives a little taste of one of those moments.
It takes place in December 2001 when I accompanied Dr Paisley, George Savage and PJ Bradley to Strasbourg. They had formed a Committee delegation to meet with the EU Fisheries Commissioner, Franz Fischler, in support of Northern Ireland’s fishermen ahead of the December Fisheries Council. Our hotel was just across the border in Baden Baden, Germany.
Bright and early the next morning, I made my way down to the restaurant for breakfast. Dr Paisley had already been shown to a table for the four of us and had just sat down. Breakfast was served at the table, rather than buffet-style, and the nice waitress greeted us with a very friendly “Good morning” and asked us what we would like to order.
Ignoring the printed menu, Dr Paisley roared “I’ll have a bowl of porridge, dear!” In her slightly accented English, the waitress replied that she was sorry but that the hotel had no porridge. “No porridge? That’s why you’re such a weak country” bellowed Dr Paisley, as heads turned throughout the breakfast room. I thought he was joking. Of course he was joking. Wasn’t he? What next? Would he actually mention the war?
He let out a big guffaw, the waitress smiled, and I let out a very big sigh of relief that a major diplomatic incident with ‘the Germans’ had been avoided. We duly ordered cooked breakfasts from the menu and the waitress scurried off to let the kitchen know.
“I’ll have some tea, please, Paul” said the big man next. I was taken aback, not at the tea delivery expectation, which was by now something of a team in-joke, but by him remembering and using my name. This didn’t happen often, and never in front of other members, when “Mister Clerk” was the norm. I supposed he felt he couldn’t call me “dear”.
So, I may have been slightly distracted as I went to the tea station, took a teabag from its packaging, placed it in a very nice little teapot and poured in the hot water from the still. I was having black coffee, as was my wont, and brought both back to the table. Dr Paisley allowed his pot to brew for a while, then poured the tea into his white cup, where its bright red colour stood out, and a very fruity berried aroma filled the air. Whoops!
“Whaaaat? I’ll not be drinking that, Mister Clerk” roared Dr Paisley. “Indeed not, Chairman, for that is not tea at all” said I, and I scuttled off to find another teapot and a proper English breakfast tea to put in it this time. If my Clerking capabilities were being judged on my tea-making, I’m afraid I’d just lost a lot of Clerking points in the Chairman’s eyes, and he took great comedic pleasure in regaling George and PJ with the story of my heinous crime, as they arrived (separately) at the table.
I maintain that the period covered in this book was an important piece of our political history, in that it marked the start of Dr Paisley’s somewhat surprising evolution from being the outside-the-tent firebrand minister of “Never” to his ultimate establishment role as Northern Ireland’s First Minister.
Might this past transformation suggest there is still hope for the Assembly’s future? Politics can sometimes surprise us all.
Paul Moore is the author of ‘Doctor Paisley and Mister Clerk – Recollections of Ian Paisley’s Agriculture Committee Years’. It is available from Amazon.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.