Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

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Getting even... Ian Paisley's last stand

The political obituaries will have to be ripped up and started again following his bombshell interviews. But the truth is Ian Paisley was always ruled more by his heart than his head, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Revelations: Ian Paisley was scathing about Peter Robinson.

The obituaries had already been written, well before the two programmes in which Dr Ian Paisley, Lord Bannside, opened his home and heart to Eamonn Mallie.

They will now have to be rewritten and journalists will be trying to accommodate the new insights, the puzzle of why he gave those interviews. And they will be struggling for a decisive angle on how the Big Man is to be remembered.

It was all perfectly clear a couple of weeks ago. He was a legend. Now, as in a Shakespearean tragedy, the great man is laid low, exposed as mortal and frail. Overtaken by an umbrage he should have kept in check, he has made his wounded exclusion the prevailing theme of his story.

So why now? Why tarnish the memory? I have a few ideas. One is that Ian Paisley does not care what I think of him or, very much, what Eamonn Mallie thinks of him. He does care about what the DUP and the Free Presbyterians think of him and he is wounded by their rejection.

He probably believes, perhaps rightly, that many in the party and church still revere him and were not told by their own leaders and elders precisely how he was shoved out and how much that hurt him.

Ian Paisley is not embarrassed by how the wider public and media discuss him. He got over that about 60 years ago.

Another consideration is that Ian Paisley is driven more by heart than head. The positive side of this is that he is wonderfully charming and decent, sometimes.

Ann Travers wrote on Facebook this week about how he came to her family after her sister, Mary, had been shot dead by the IRA. He hugged her. She was 14 years old and he prayed with her.

This, from the firebrand evangelical whose literal theology will have told him that Mary was a lost soul. There were many times, dealing with the bereaved, when Ian Paisley chose to be not so literal at all. When SDLP MLA Eddie McGrady's wife, Patricia, died, Paisley crossed the Assembly chamber and knelt down beside him and prayed with him. And some people would say that was showy and intrusive, but McGrady was glad of that and said so.

The other thing about Paisley is that he is not a political tactician; he has always been the front man who functioned best when he had someone else's brains behind him. He is not remotely in the same league as Gerry Adams in his ability to hold to a line for calculated effect.

He is not very bright. Yes, he has barnstorming eloquence, but he gave up much of the prospect of personal intellectual development when he aligned himself to a literal faith.

He knows the Book and, if he doesn't know much else, then that doesn't bother him, because, for him, only the Book matters.

Look back on all the times he stormed out of studios, determined that difficult questions were nothing but fiendish trickery.

For all that, he has been on television more often than nearly everyone else here, if he never learned much of how to use it. Once, when I accompanied him in his campaigning car, he handed the microphone to David McIlveen and said he believed emanations from it were drying his mouth. He couldn't see that his mouth was dry because he had been shouting for hours.

So, another possibility is that he didn't really know what he was giving Eamonn Mallie; that he couldn't visualise the end product, or contemplate its effect.

If he, or Eileen, had had any media savvy they would have made their points without the bitchiness, but they couldn't contain it. Eileen called Nigel Dodds a "sod".

There must be some at the BBC who thought that obscenity should not have been broadcast.

Ian sneered about how rich his own marriage is, implying a contrast with the Robinsons' marriage, whose travails have been public. He indicted Peter Robinson as "the Beast". To a secular audience, that might sound just like a jibe, but to his evangelical followers it effectively names him as one foretold.

Whatever people make of these programmes, they should not think that they are out of character with the man himself.

He was always temperamental, given to rages and to personalising attacks, even to undermining his own prospects and credibility.

The amazing thing is those who loved him regarded him as a stalwart, the very model of consistency. That may have been true of his attitudes to the Bible and the border, but he was always volatile. And now he feels isolated and rejected.

And it didn't have to be that way. As in the best Shakespearean tragedies, Paisley – like Lear, Macbeth, or Othello – was not felled by a comet from the blue, but by a failing in himself that was already evident. Those who knew his vagaries and his temperament and who rode to power on his coattails might have had the decency to keep in touch and try to keep him sweet. They should have seen this coming.

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