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The Big Man was on a Journey all right ... just not the one you think

The Ian Paisley-Martin McGuinness film underplays the key role that religious conviction had in the late DUP leader's political life


Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall as Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley in The Journey

Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall as Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley in The Journey

Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall as Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley in The Journey

The Journey tells a tale of the Rev Ian Paisley's slow embrace of power-sharing and Martin McGuinness. It's intended as a "homage", Colm Meaney, who plays McGuinness, told The View last Thursday night. Timothy Spall (Paisley) described how he had worked to depict how the old Bible-and-thunder rabble-rouser who mellowed in his sunset years into a soft-focus seeker after reconciliation.

That is to say, the film follows the widely preferred narrative of two weary warriors casting off ancient enmities to lead their long-embattled communities along the path of peace.

The anxiety of the makers to tip-toe down a line drawn exactly midway between the protagonists' positions was clear in director Nick Hamm's statement last week that, "We made sure that the test audiences who saw it in Northern Ireland were well represented by both sides of the spectrum".

Striking a balance may often make good political sense. Just as often, though, it makes for bad art.

Moreover, to suggest that the gathering friendship between the two men was key to a coming-together of people in the north generally is a charming thought, but built on an assumption that, at journey's end, hard times will come again no more.

Thus, South Down MLA Jim Wells sounded like a blast from the past when he insisted last month that "Peter will not marry Paul in Northern Ireland".

The sting in the statement came not so much from the sentiment, as from the harshness of its expression.

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The DUP would "strangle that idea at birth". The party would split if the leadership made any move in that direction to coax Sinn Fein back into an Executive.

Wells' tone struck an especially discordant note at a time when Arlene Foster was cooing respect for the Irish language and signalling that she'd have no problem with an Irish Language Act once the Assembly was back in business.

Even Gregory Campbell, widely seen as an intractable hold-out against the new departure, appeared to be doing well in weaning himself off the curried yogurt.

But Wells might have had in mind that saving Ulster from equal marriage had been at least as important a factor as salving the wounds of history in Paisley's agreement to govern alongside Sinn Fein.

The fact that a functioning Assembly would give his party an effective veto over moves to extend British law on gay rights and abortion was the sugar coating which enabled him to swallow the new arrangement.

The interplay between devolution and defending the north from the 'gay threat' had been on show in the Commons in October 2004, when Home Office minister Jacqui Smith introduced the Civil Partnership Bill.

The Assembly was in suspension, mainly over failure to agree on policing. The DUP leader wanted to know: "Why is the Bill not going to be left until the Assembly is up and running again so that the people of Northern Ireland can make the decision themselves?"

Smith shot back that, for as long as the Assembly remained suspended, it fell to Westminster to deal with the issue.

"It makes sense to legislate, as we propose ... for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland".

If the Member for North Antrim didn't like it, the remedy was in his own hands.

In December the following year, Belfast City Hall saw the first civil partnership ceremony in the UK, between Shannon Sickles and Grainne Close.

As the happy lesbians emerged skipping hand-in-hand into a blizzard of colour and cheers, members of the DUP were to the fore among a dour contingent by the back gate urging God, mysteriously, to "Save Ulster from Sodomy".

And 15 months after that, Paisley was cheek-by-jowl with Gerry Adams at Stormont, delighting the world's media as he welcomed the return of the Assembly on a bright new day.

Every effort since to legislate for equal marriage has been stymied by DUP deployment of its veto, aka petition of concern.

The same scenario has been played out in relation to abortion.

Power-sharing with McGuinness's party was part of the price Paisley had to pay to save Ulster from unbiblical abomination. In this perspective, Wells had a right of sorts to proclaim that the DUP would allow no law on equal marriage to pass.

Most politicians affect to regard religious considerations as irrelevant. But since first he erupted onto platforms and pulpits across the north, Paisley was driven by religion more than by politics.

He roared it out - "Ulster" was Europe's last redoubt of biblical Protestantism. To weaken its defences, to make nice with nationalism, would near enough be blasphemy.

There was nothing off-key about the hymns with which he used to welcome electoral success. How else to mark a victory for religion? There are fewer contradictions than The Journey suggests between the old scary Paisley and the more recent cuddly version. As the material circumstances changed around him, he did a U-turn, so he could face the same way. Religious conviction, not political strategy, dictated his direction.

The imperatives of fundamentalism cannot explain every twist in the tumult of Paisley's life. But any narrative of his career which doesn't put its main stress on the fervour of his religious faith is missing the point and misunderstanding the man.

The film misses a point, too, in focusing so tightly on the two men as exemplars of their communities, their degree of rapport indicative of the state of community relations.

The unspoken message is that the conflict is rooted in a hostility between Protestants and Catholics here and can best be resolved by us learning to know and better to appreciate one another.

Britain's role, conveyed by the embarrassingly clunky plot-device of a British spook masquerading as the men's driver and prompting them towards the desired conclusion with questions fed into his earpiece from on high, is depicted as, perhaps, manipulative, but decently intended to cajole the natives to stop fighting.

It is greatly to be doubted whether Paisley - who always had, and with good reason, a deep suspicion of British intentions towards the Union and unionists - would have been content with this characterisation.

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