Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Ian Paisley: Portrait of a man unable to admit his own faults

Rev Ian Paisley grabs journalist Ivan Little during a TV interview at the North Antrim count at Ballymoney in the Northern Ireland election, November 27 2003
Rev Ian Paisley grabs journalist Ivan Little during a TV interview at the North Antrim count at Ballymoney in the Northern Ireland election, November 27 2003

I was once told that the two keys to understanding Ian Paisley's character were that he would never support anything he couldn't lead, and that he "couldn't hold his own water".

Eamonn Mallie's fascinating extended interview with Rev Paisley illustrates both points. If this is to be his testimony to posterity, then history is unlikely to judge him as positively as he judges himself.

He is an egotist, a back seat driver unable to let go of power and influence with a good grace. Now that he is no longer in charge of it, he rounds on the Free Presbyterian Church, which faithfully followed and kept him as a perpetual moderator for most of his career, not to mention providing him with an income and giving him two houses to live in.

Peter Robinson, who had followed him since 1970, acted as his deputy until Paisley resigned in 2008. He was 82 at the time, but apparently thinks it was too soon to let go of the steering wheel. He has been an irritating and erratic back seat driver ever since.

Perhaps the most shocking admission in the show was that he believed the civil rights movement's demands to be right all along. He added that he could not associate himself with it because he believed that those in charge supported a united Ireland.

The problem is that he didn't just not associate with it and stand aloof, he actively opposed it and was jailed for staging rowdy counter-demonstrations. He also attacked unionist leaders who tried to reform the system, making peaceful change impossible. It wasn't the only factor, but Lord Bannside's resistance to reform and to power-sharing with the SDLP was certainly one factor that helped push us towards conflict.

Of course, his supporters will say, and it is true, that he cannot be held responsible for other people's decisions to become active in the IRA or other violent groups. As Peter Robinson said: "I have a settled and clear view about terrorism. The people who are responsible for terrorists' actions are terrorists."

Yet this isn't a standard which Lord Bannside extends to others, as evidenced in his attempts to explain away the Dublin and Monaghan car bombings, in which 33 people were murdered by the UVF.

The Big Man has done himself no favours in this documentary, fascinating though it is. He emerges as someone who cannot admit his own faults. For a man of his age, he is shocking in his lack of perspective and self-knowledge.

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