“There was something gushing in him: an elemental ‘I Am’ with presence and personality” — Pic by Moochin Photoman

Ian Paisley: Skirmisher, preacher, 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.”
- The 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 in the Daily Telegraph, 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 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 and nationalists whose efforts to reform Northern Ireland were killed off in the late 1960s and early 1970s by his fundamentalist No Surrender politics.

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

I think what annoyed my parents back then 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.

Former BBC Ireland correspondent Denis Murray speaking 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 as one of three MEPs for Northern Ireland from 1979 onwards which convinced him that endless confrontation was not the way forward.

This political moderation was already visible in the broader conduct of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) during Jim Pryor’s ultimately failed rolling devolution project when it was the DUP who urged in vain the supposedly more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) to stick with it.

The whole process ended with the imposition of the Anglo Irish Agreement and Mr Paisley’s perhaps defining Never, Never, Never, never speech.

Politically he was a skirmisher, always attacking the enemy well ahead of the front lines and firing from cover rather than in the open field. The invariable effect was to worsen the behaviour of both those 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 in 2007 there was only himself left to take the position of First Minster. 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 Eamonn Mallie interviews (part 1 and part 2) that he was bitter about the way he’d been dispatched from the leadership both of the church and party he had founded.

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 belatedly 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!”

A version of this article was first published on Slugger O’Toole.

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