Belfast Telegraph

Praise the Lord, but let’s not ignore his past deeds

As Ian Paisley takes his place in the House of Lords, David Gordon suggests he still has questions to answer on his past politics

There has been an irony overload in Northern Ireland politics ever since old foes snuggled up together and jettisoned their past positions. But it's still hard to write about the elevation of Ian Paisley to the House of Lords without using the word irony.

This is the man who railed for many years against "Big House" unionism. Now he's joining one of the biggest and grandest houses of all, adding Lord Bannside to his Reverend and Doctor titles.

The veneration of Ian Paisley in recent years raises him close to the likes of Mother Teresa and Bruce Forsyth. Criticism is bad taste, not the done thing. The powers-that-be in London and Dublin will never tire of thanking him for striking a devolution agreement with Sinn Fein in 2007. And it might be best to banish any thoughts that he could or should have struck a deal years or even decades earlier.

The official narrative is - thanks so much, your noble Lordship.

Irish President Mary McAleese had the ex-DUP leader and his Baroness wife Eileen to tea recently in Dublin. And Prime Minister David Cameron got the chance to express his gratitude, telling MPs: "Everyone has had to take big risks for peace in Northern Ireland, and no more so than the Big Man, as they like to call him."

If you can hear a whirring noise, it might just be Brian Faulkner spinning in his grave. Faulkner was the first unionist leader to espouse power sharing, a mere 33 years before the DUP and its leader. He was viciously pilloried by Paisley and brought down. But is recalling such facts simply bad manners now?

Is it right to ask the elder statesman if he regrets any of his past actions - such as his angry counter-demos to civil rights marches in the late Sixties as Northern Ireland tensions headed towards boiling point?

Should all critical faculties be suspended, as Lord Bannside bows out of frontline Northern Ireland politics to international applause?

It's surely not completely unreasonable to pose a few polite questions. The fact is that there has still been no coherent explanation from the ex-DUP leader for the 2007 U-turn that saw him saying yes after 40 years of shouting no.

Does he still believe power-sharing was wrong in principle prior to that point? Was he right to denounce other unionist leaders in Old Testament-style rhetoric for being prepared to compromise at an earlier stage than he was?

It has been suggested that Sinn Fein's decision to support policing was the clincher for Paisley's 2007 power-sharing deal. That may be so, but he and his party did not oppose the Good Friday Agreement so fiercely on the basis that republicans had not signed up to back the police.

Back then, it was all about opposing Sinn Fein/IRA in government.

IRA decommissioning in 2005 can also be seen as a significant step, but that decommissioning was described by Paisley at the time as a "charade".

He also spoke of "the mighty host of forces intent on pushing down the throats of the Ulster people the blatant lie that the IRA has decommissioned all its weapons", adding: "That falsehood was so blatant even Lord Haw-Haw would have blushed to utter it."

Politicians can - and at times should - change direction. But Paisley has denied performing a U-turn. In one of his last media interviews as DUP leader in 2008, he claimed there had been "no real change as far as our policy was concerned". While that remains his public position, it is not entirely impertinent to briefly raise a quizzical eyebrow.

The alternative is to set aside the history books and memories of the past 40 years and join in the choruses of approval.

David Gordon is political editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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