How will Ian Paisley, who has died at the age of 88, be remembered? As the firebrand preacher who stoked the fires of conflict in Northern Ireland or as a peacemaker and the partner in government of Martin McGuinness?
Many people struggle to make sense of what appear to be entirely contradictory phases in his life. Most of the media, the British and Irish governments, and even Martin McGuinness who describes him as a friend, choose to focus on his 2007 decision to form a coalition with Sinn Fein. The media have made much of Paisley’s nicknames, claiming that for years he was known as “Doctor No” because of his rejection of all attempts at compromise but that at the end of his life he and Martin McGuinness together were known as “the chuckle brothers” because they were seen laughing together so often. The use of both of these nicknames is largely confined to the media. Most simply knew Paisley as Paisley, his creed as Paisleyism, and his followers as Paisleyites. And for decades the name Paisley struck fear into the hearts of not just Catholics but Protestant working class activists. The lauding of Paisley grates with most Catholics, who cannot forget the role he played, but also in the throat of the many Protestants who reject everything he stood for.
So how did a preacher who led his own church (the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster) for six decades, and his own political party (the Democratic Unionist Party or DUP) for nearly as long, become the most prominent politician in Northern Ireland? After all this is a man who defended the most repressive approaches on social issues such as sexuality (in the late 1970s, for example, he launched his odious “Save Ulster from Sodomy” campaign to oppose even limited rights for gay men).
Paisley’s initial base was not built in industrial working class areas but in the North Antrim area around the large town of Ballymena. His first following was largely rural, conservative and religiously fundamentalist. Even in Ballymena itself it took time before he seized control of the council. When he did in the mid-1970s he imposed his fundamentalist ideas on everyone else, closing the swimming pool and chaining up the park swings on Sundays. It was members of Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) from a Protestant background who lead the opposition in this largely Protestant town, protesting against the Sunday closure policy and challenging the DUP in council by-elections.
Working class Protestants gave Paisley little support in the 1950s, 1960s and well into the 1970s. In Protestant areas he was a figure of fun and contempt for anyone who was forward looking or left inclined. This changed over time. In the late 1960’s there was a sense that change was in the air, represented politically by the growth of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) but as the Troubles spun out of control “hard men” on both sides came to the fore and the sense of working class solidarity and unity weakened.
There was nothing inevitable about this development however. The leaders of the labour and trade union movement abdicated their responsibility to provide an alternative, and their responsibility to stand up to right-wing and anti-working class demagogues like Paisley. As a direct result the previous NILP stronghold of East Belfast fell to the DUP in the 1979 General Election. The victorious candidate was today’s DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson. The DUP gained its working class base in part by deliberately cultivating an image as the representatives of the Protestant working class, in opposition to the “big house” unionism of the Ulster Unionist Party or UUP (the party which governed Northern Ireland from partition until the imposition of direct rule in 1972).
1979 was a turning point: the DUP now had three MPs and could not be ignored. Its support reached a ceiling over the next twenty or so years however, as many potential supporters could not stomach Paisley’s on-off flirting with paramilitary organisations and paramilitary methods. As far back as 1956 Paisley was one of the founders of Ulster Protestant Action (UPA). From the start violence wasn’t far away. In June 1959, after Paisley addressed a UPA rally in Belfast, some of the crowd attacked Catholic-owned shops and a riot ensued.
During the 1964 general election campaign Paisley fomented the so-called “Tricolour riots”, the worst in Belfast since the 1930s. In April 1966 Paisley and Noel Doherty founded the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee (UCDC) and a paramilitary wing, the Ulster Protestant volunteers (UPV). Around the same time, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) emerged, led by Gusty Spence. Many of its members were also members of the UCDC and UPV, including Noel Doherty. In May 1966 the UVF set fire to a Catholic-owned pub and caused the death of an elderly Protestant widow who lived next door, and shot John Scullion, a Catholic civilian, as he walked home. He died of his wounds on 11 June. On 26 June, the group shot dead a second Catholic man and wounded two others as they left a pub on Malvern Street, Belfast. Following the killings, the UVF was outlawed and Paisley immediately denied any knowledge of its activities. This established a pattern that was to be repeated over the following decades and led to those who became active in Loyalist paramilitary organisations to hate him with a vengeance. One of those convicted for the 1966 killings was explicit in his words: “I am terribly sorry I ever heard of that man Paisley or decided to follow him”.
Paisley spent the rest of his career playing with violence: he enrolled the help of mainstream loyalist paramilitary groups in two work stoppages (in 1974 and 1977) and established several groups of his own, including the “Third Force” in 1981 and “Ulster Resistance” in 1986.
When the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 Paisley and the DUP were opposed. Over the following decade he sniped at the UUP but ensured he and his party had their hands on whatever levers of power were available. In these years the uncertainty and fear felt by most Protestants delivered Paisley want he wanted – majority support amongst the Protestant electorate. This support was built on a clear platform of opposition to Sinn Fein in government. As late as July 2006 Paisley stated that Sinn Fein “are not fit to be in partnership with decent people. They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland and it will be over our dead bodies if they ever get there.”
The lure of power, created its own momentum however. Once the DUP were the dominant and largest party the question of going into government was concretely posed. The rigid structures created by the GFA (the aim being to maintain peace by copper-fastening sectarian division) made it difficult to stand aside. Personal factors may also have played a part-Paisley reportedly had a near death experience in 2004, and younger members of the DUP such as Robinson were keen to do a deal. It was also easier for Paisley to go into government when he could credibly claim victory, pointing to the fact that Sinn Fein agreed to support the police and the IRA to destroy its arms.
On 8 May 2007 Paisley was elected First Minister with Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister. Ironically when he made his decision the fiercest opposition came from his original base in rural areas, especially in North Antrim. He was forced out of his positions as DUP leader and Free Presbyterian moderator and retired to snipe at his successors. Attempts to canonise him as a peace maker were hampered by his own words and actions. As late as 2013 he stated in a television interview that the 33 innocent civilians who died in UVF no-warning car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan in 1974 had “brought it on themselves”.
Everything had changed but nothing had changed. Political theorists argue that it was necessary to bring the most extreme representatives of each community together in order to deliver a stable peace. The reality is that the most extreme representatives of each community can only deliver division and conflict, even if for now there is less violence on the streets.
Paisley certainly stood out but it would be a mistake to see him as unique. If Paisley had never lived someone like him would have come to the fore. And whilst the entire generation of politicians who emerged to prominence in the turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s now bask in the “success” of the peace process all played a negative role in that period. One day there will be an historic reckoning. Paisley won’t be around to see it but his ilk and his successors will be. A united working class will sweep away all the detritus of the past and all its rotten sectarian representatives. Remembering Paisley’s real role is one step on the road to that reckoning.