The Paisley Project Chuckles into Oblivion
So that’s it. The end of the Paisley era. Finally the politician who dominated the political landscape of my childhood has decided to stand down. After over 40 years as an MP, he will leave the Houses of Parliament. It’s likely that he’ll stand down from the Northern Ireland Assembly at the next election too. Of course, his son, Ian Jr will stand in North Antrim. He’ll probably lose. I’ll come onto the reasons for that later. I greet Paisley’s departure with no joy but considerable relief.
I grew up in Belfast, and although I don’t often write about it have a long standing interest in the politics of the North of Ireland.
There was an interview on the Today programme on Saturday morning in which he was reminiscing about his political career. I was speaking to some friends later that day. They displayed an odd attitude that I’ve noticed proliferating. People seem to have warmed to Ian Paisley. For years the face of homophobic, sectarian hate in Ulster, Paisley was widely despised by progressives, liberals, greens and, perhaps most of all, moderates. Now he seems to have enjoyed an – albeit limited – rehabilitation. People seem to have conflated his newly jovial manner with the final settlement of a tribal conflict.
My opinion remains unchanged. In fact I possibly think less of him now than I did even when he was at his most damaging to the prospect of peace in the North of Ireland. He has proved through his actions to have cynically manipulated Ulster protestants. He has directed a pantomime in which he painted anyone who might compromise as villains. On this criterion he became a much greater villain once given the chance.
He stood as a one-man road block to reconciliation in Northern Irish politics. He was often reported to be the finest recruiting tool that armed republicans had. He wrecked hopes for a settlement in the early 1970s, in league with Vanguard, through the Ulster Workers Council strike. He delayed peace all through the 1980s, describing compromise as “a sell out by instalment.” He played to the worst nature of Ulster Protestants, whipping up fear of a united Ireland, and destabilising any move for peace. He built a party, the “Democratic” Unionist Party (DUP) around these ideals.
The hypocrisy is rife. The little told story of the North of Ireland is how, after the end of inter-community violence, the paramilitaries turned on their own communities. Wrecking horrific damage on young people through “knee-cappings” and punishment beatings, this went uncondemned by Paisley and his party of ‘law and order’. Rather than representing an ascetic tradition of selfless sacrifice to politics, the DUP has been mired accusations of corruption, around Iris Robinson and Ian Paisley’s own son. The personal gain for many DUP politicians has been immense. The damage they caused to their followers has been great.
The bitter recriminations between Paisley and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble led to the destruction of the UUP as the majority party of unionism. It set back the prospects for peace. The pretext was that they would “never talk to terrorists” – by which they meant the majority party of nationalism, Sinn Fein. This was presented as a principled position, that respected the families of those killed by armed republicans. It’s something that I’m sure we could all understand, even if, like me you might disagree.
And here’s where I diverge from those who see Paisley as a reformed soul. As soon as the DUP were in a position to do a deal, they grabbed whatever was on the table. Far from defending Ulster’s protestants from a “sell-out”, they sold out at the first available opportunity. The DUP, with Paisley as First Minister went into government with Sinn Fein. Paisley went from saying he wouldn’t talk to republicans (who he characterised as terrorists) to sitting on a sofa at the opening of the Belfast branch of IKEA with Martin McGuinness, Deputy Leader of Sinn Fein. The image cemented their nickname: “The Chuckle Brothers.”
What he demonstrated in all of this is that politics was merely a stage for him. His actions prolonged the conflict and caused thousands of deaths. Not because he had any principles. But because he couldn’t stand anyone else being the representative of Ulster Protestants. As soon as it was him making the deal, the deal was fine.
So the families of those killed by republicans who thought they were voting for a party that would never speak to republicans found they’d been sold out much more cynically than Ulster Unionists ever had. Paisley was forced out of the First Minister’s office by his long time lieutenant, Peter Robinson as a result of unionist outrage. Paisley had supported the terrorist organisation “Ulster Resistence” in 1986.
In the Westminster election, the DUP may even be wiped out. The fourth largest party at Westminster may cease to have representation there. Paisley’s bastion of North Antrim looks like it will fall to Jim Allister, a former DUP MEP who has formed his own party, Traditional Unionist Voice to occupy the political position formerly held by the DUP. This will deny Ian Paisley Jr what he must have considered his birthright: a seat at Westminster.
It will be a fitting end to a political career that more than any other deserved to end in failure. It also demonstrates a broader concern about politics. Even those most stout in their defence of values are susceptible to the belief that any abandonment of their values is acceptable as long as it’s them doing it. I hope that, when it’s possible to analyse the Irish conflict with historical insight people will come to see Paisley for what he was: a petulant bully on an ego-trip, willing to sell out his followers for a short ride in a ministerial limo.