Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Like McGuinness, Paisley settled for terms far short of what he had once incited others to go out and kill for

 

Ian Paisley
Ian Paisley

By Malachi O'Doherty

The evidence against Rev Ian Paisley in tonight's Secret History of the Troubles on BBC One Northern Ireland is a bit weaker than that against Martin McGuinness, but I wonder how much it changes our perceptions of the man anyway. Ian Paisley was such a towering figure in the political culture we came to call loyalism that, in those days, it was called Paisleyism and a follower of Paisley was a Paisleyite.

He seemed then to be the latest embodiment of an historic line of evangelical rabble-rousers like Henry Cooke and "Roaring" Hugh Hannah.

Paisley was the greatest popular orator we had seen, or, indeed, have seen since. Presumably, his skills were sharpened in the gospel halls and churches in which he fulminated against Rome and Papism.

He arrived on the political scene fully formed as a man who could attract and enthuse a crowd. The same skills which had enabled him to bellow down the resistance of the timid, to the need to be saved, worked just as well on the workers and farmhands.

And they bought into the foolish notion that Ulster was threatened by Catholicism, that the IRA might pull the last bastion of the Protestant Ascendancy into a tight wee conservative Ireland that took its orders from the Pope.

He was right about one thing: that the Catholic Church was a much more unhealthy influence on the life of the republic than many were admitting at the time.

But the overall vision - that the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and the IRA wanted an all-Ireland Catholic state - was absurd let alone that either had the prospect of bringing it about.

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What he was really enunciating at the time was a culture war. One of the most grisly moments in tonight's programme is when Lord Brookeborough, once the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, says: "By and large, the Roman Catholic is out to destroy Northern Ireland."

He is speaking of his people in the tones of a Victorian anthropologist describing the tribal customs of Pacific islanders.

Of course, the modern Sinn Fein ideologue might be content with this apparent confirmation that Catholics were always so estranged from the state as to want a rebel army to rise up against it, but in this Brookeborough is the bigot who warned of the dangers of admitting Catholics into the administration of the state.

But is it plausible that Paisley funded a UVF bombing campaign against installations like water reservoirs and power stations? Yes, it's plausible. But it is not proven.

The coincidence of his emergence at the same time as the UVF was hardly an accidental one. It may be that he was blind to the effect he had on people and to the opportunities for conspiracy that he created by bringing Paisleyites together in mobs and firing them up. But hardly.

One of those convicted of the murder of Peter Ward in 1966, Hugh Arnold McClean, said from the dock that he was sorry he had ever heard of "that man Paisley".

In later years, however, loyalists aired considerable suspicion of Paisley. They likened him to the Grand Old Duke of York, who had marched his men to the top of the hill and marched them down again.

He was great at the fiery rhetoric, which got people worked up and ready for murder, but he was nowhere around when the shooting and burning started. He even campaigned for the death penalty for convicted killers.

Jimmy Creighton of the UDA is said to have drawn a gun on Paisley when he turned up at Hawthornden Road to sit with the leaders of the Ulster Workers Council strike, attempting to take the leadership of it.

Still, he sat down at the table with the leaders of the UDA and the UVF at a time at which they were bringing the state to a standstill.

In that same period, the UVF bombed Monaghan and Dublin, creating the worst carnage of any day of the Troubles.

He liked to quote from Second Corinthians: "Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing." Those lines might be used to reinforce abhorrence of Rome and Catholic Ireland, but they don't seem to have mattered when he sat among bombers.

Again and again, he liked to posture as a man ready for war. There was the Third Force, the waving of gun licences on a hillside, the red beret of the Ulster Resistance.

Certainly, those who did go to jail for loyalist violence provide the best defence of Paisley against the charge of violence: he wasn't a murderer, he was a hypocrite.

He fired people up into murderous action, but he was nowhere available to take responsibility for it.

Yet, I don't think he was a religious hypocrite. I have met many of the evangelical preachers in Northern Ireland over the years as a reporter and Paisley always struck me as someone who believed in the faith he preached.

He would stand alone outside the City Hall, thundering the need to be saved at all who passed by, even when he had no one to support him there. He believed in the immanent personal God, as close in his small universe as a grandfather snoring upstairs.

The greatest threat to Paisleyism was that Protestants would be outbred by Catholics and Ulster would cease to be a bastion for the defence of the biblical faith as he understood it.

Were he to come back now and lead stamping men through the streets of small towns, raging against Rome, he would be merely ridiculous. The Protestant majority has gone, but at the same time as it was eclipsed the Republic also changed and became more secular. It is not Rome that the Bible-hugger fears now, but secular liberalism.

The loyalism of the UVF, as expressed through the Progressive Unionist Party, is more proud of the influence of David Ervine than of that of Paisley. The leader, John Kyle, is a Christian believer, but not of a kind who shunned Catholics, but actually formed prayer groups with some.

Ian Paisley was an amazing figure. No one could hold a crowd as he did. Only Eamonn McCann and Bernadette Devlin came close. And he did this with a worldview that was petty and restrictive and which has lost hold.

But he has this in common with Martin McGuinness: he settled terms far short of what he had fired people up to kill for.

And we may be grateful, while acknowledging at the same time that we would have been better off all along if we had never heard from either of them.

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