Paisley took power, but missed out on the glory
The former DUP leader enjoyed an incredible political journey. He bestrode unionism like a colossus, but one with feet of clay, argues Clifford Smyth
Soon the electors of North Antrim will return a new MP to Westminster, but who can predict who that will be?
Ian Paisley’s decision not to run again brings to an end one of the most remarkable — and controversial — careers in the annals of contemporary politics.
Some may suspect that Paisley is standing down because North Antrim cannot be regarded as a safe seat for the DUP.
This is a measure not only of the failure of Paisley’s career, but of the whole DUP ‘project’.
Ian Paisley was a colossus, but the shadow that he casts across the political landscape was one of ever-deepening unionist division and of shattered dreams.
Ian Paisley emerged as a preacher-politician, comparable to other firebrand preachers in previous generations, who mobilised Ulster’s factious Protestant population against external threat.
This was an appeal to the Orange heartlands of Ulster at a time of increasing and murderous civil unrest.
Paisley combined in his charismatic and energetic personality the vital passion of the evangelist with the populist cunning of a political agitator. The fact that Rev Paisley was dressed in clerical garb served to camouflage the ruthlessness of his bid for power.
On the fringes of politics, Paisley’s strident warnings of the dangers to come brought electoral dividends.
According to Paisley, the civil rights campaign was a stalking horse for a renewed IRA campaign. This analysis was shared by thousands of ‘backwoodsmen’.
A hostile media mocked the loyalists, but Paisleyism recruited them. A new political class emerged: people who had never harboured any political ambitions found themselves elected to positions in local government, devolved institutions and Westminster.
A high price would be paid. The message of unionism’s founding fathers that ‘unity is strength’ was cast aside.
Those who first encountered Paisley’s Protestant Unionists — and their offspring, the Democratic Unionist Party — met activists infused with passionate religious zealotry. These folk believed that Ian Paisley had been raised up by Almighty God to save Ulster in its hour of need.
This was a form of idolatry, but Paisley was no iconoclast. For Paisley, though, ‘Official Unionism’ and not Irish Republicanism was the greater enemy. This subtle difference of emphasis was often lost sight of in the heat of confrontation.
Ian Paisley’s election to the European Parliament secured the DUP’s position as a party to be reckoned with. Behind the scenes, though, there had been an unspoken contest in the Presbytery of the Free Presbyterian Church.
Some dared to speak out against Ian Paisley’s egotistical decision to ‘stand for Europe’. The Rev John Wylie’s objection was based on his understanding of Bible prophecy. Once a close friend of ‘The Doc’, Wylie walked away.
Though a close secret, this event’s importance cannot be overstated. Ian Paisley was an authoritarian figure and the forms of discipline and secrecy that he imposed on his church were transplanted to the DUP.
Ian Paisley was also pragmatic in both his theology and his political principles. There was no promise that Ian Paisley made to his supporters that he would not abandon if that commitment impeded his route to power. In the fullness of time, another close supporter of the Free Church Moderator, the Rev Ivan Foster, would walk the same path of disillusionment.
On polling day, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster would act as a supercharger for the DUP. Come the election, the ‘Free Churches’ would provide extra workers to supplement the party activists, church buses to carry voters to the polls, phones and other premises.
Overarching all this frenetic activity was Ian Paisley himself. Many of those elected to office on a DUP ticket would have remained non-entities but for their personal allegiance to Ian Paisley.
Meanwhile, the DUP had been transformed into a powerful vote-garnering machine, but the party had moved a long way from its core supporters and their conservative beliefs in honesty and truthfulness.
The DUP had become a thoroughly modern political party; arrogant and given over to the excesses of media manipulation, choreographing, sequencing and finessing.
With the ‘peace process’, the political civil war between the Ulster Unionist Party and the DUP intensified.
Trimble and the UUP crumbled and the route to power opened up for Paisley and the DUP.
Paisley now entered into the most pragmatic manoeuvre of his career — a deal with the party Paisley had promised to ‘smash’, Sinn Fein. With the St Andrews Agreement signed, Paisley was lauded by the British and American governments and the media and embraced by Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness. Paisley was simultaneously First Minister, a peacemaker and a ‘Chuckle Brother’. Paisley’s followers decamped by the church busload.
Now, the parallel between Gordon Brown and Ian Paisley becomes intense: sons of the manse and brooking no rival in their bid for power only to find that their friends have deserted them and instead of visions of glory, there is a moral wasteland.
Clifford Smyth is the author of Ian Paisley: Voice of Protestant Ulster (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press)