The new Paisley, pretty much the same as the old Paisley

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

For the past few years Ian Paisley has had a broader, more sympathetic audience than at any other point in his career. He has conveyed the impression of a chuckling, clubbable, kindly man: a former hardliner who has willingly converted and then travelled to the centre ground in pursuit of compromise and a genuine cross-community settlement. A couple of periods of illness have been accompanied by new levels of sympathy, with people on both sides reassessing their former view of him.

Eamonn Mallie’s new profile (part one is on BBC1 tonight at 10.35) will, I suspect, cause many people to revise their opinion. While admitting that gerrymandering, voting restrictions and housing policy were all wrong he says that he couldn’t support the Civil Rights Association because it was ‘just a front’ for a united Ireland. So why didn’t he take up the equality of citizenship argument from a different angle and with a different vehicle?

Referencing the 1974 ‘strike’ that toppled the first power-sharing executive he remained unwilling to put any distance between the purpose of the strike and the paramilitary activities of organisations like the UDA.

While condemning the Monaghan and Dublin bombings, which killed 30 people on May 17, 1974, he suggests that the attitudes of ‘southern politicians’ were partly to blame.

He claims to have no memory of having said some of the particularly unpleasant anti-Catholic quotes read out by Mallie, yet stands over the content. He is incapable of drawing any connection between some of his rhetoric down the years and the actions of others.

Some of the responses he gives will lead many people – especially those who have taken a kindlier view of him recently – to question whether or not the leopard really has changed his spots. They will also force many to question whether the 2007 ‘deal’ with Sinn Fein was ever genuine.

What would Northern Ireland have been like without Ian Paisley? Actually, I’m not sure that our history would have been all that different. He was larger than life and mostly angry, but had he not been there others would have emerged to fill that role. The 1956-62 IRA campaign; the Civil Rights Association; the emergence of PIRA; the collapse of Stormont and the 1972 power-sharing/Irish dimension policy were not reactions to anything that Paisley did or bellowed.

Paisley lapped up the attacks on him from London, Dublin, liberal unionism and the wider media. He lapped up the publicity and attention. He loved it when nationalist/republican politicians claimed that mainstream unionism was running scared of him. (And isn’t it interesting to note that 40 years on nationalists/republicans are now accusing the ‘mainstream’ DUP of running scared of the likes of Bryson and Frazer?).

He loved the applause, the rallies, the stunts and the megaphone. He loved his role as the self-styled ‘true voice’ of ‘Protestant Ulster’ and only legitimate heir of Carson.

But what did he really do for either Northern Ireland or unionism? He never actually stopped anything he fulminated against. He was actually just a cog in the 1974 strike, yet happy to claim the credit. His own strike in 1977 collapsed within a few days. His Carson Trail rallies and Third Force stuntery came to nothing. The never-never-never rhetoric came to nothing. His hatred of O’Neill, Faulkner, Molyneaux and Trimble came to nothing. He was always a wrecking ball rather than a builder. He didn’t destroy the Good Friday Agreement and, in exchange for a carve-up deal with Sinn Fein in 2007, tumbled into bed with the former commander-in-chief of the IRA – something which Trimble never did.

What we see in the first programme is a man who probably hasn’t really changed at all. He ended up where he did because there was nowhere else for him to go. He was always a reactor rather than a leader. Always a follower of events rather than someone who steered them with a clear, credible strategy in place.

As far back as November 1999 the DUP was well aware that it couldn’t replace or rewrite the Good Friday Agreement: yet equally well aware that it couldn’t get itself into a power-sharing deal with Sinn Fein without the imprimatur of Paisley.

I believe – and I said so at the time – that Paisley’s natural instincts were almost certainly against a deal with Sinn Fein. Had he really spent all that time as a thorn-in-the-flesh of mainstream unionism just to end his career as a sidekick to Martin McGuinness?

Yet he was persuaded to conclude a deal, a deal which would have the DUP as top dog with the ‘Big Man’ in charge. At that point the DUP was top-heavy with people who enjoyed the perks, salaries and career opportunities that accompanied the Assembly and Paisley was the key to their continuing success.

But within weeks of him becoming First Minister in May 2007 they were undermining and briefing against him. If truth be told they were embarrassed by him – scared of the throwaway line, the ‘chuckling with Marty’ and any sign of the Paisley of old. Within a year he had been dumped as leader, First Minister and Moderator.

The ‘big man’ is a much reduced figure now: and in recent DUP events almost airbrushed out of their history. I don’t think he comes out of the first programme all that well. That’s not Mallie’s fault and nor is it because Paisley is clearly old and tired. What we see is the real Paisley: the man he has always been.

Contradictory. Menacing. Mischievous. Publicity hungry. The man who set up a newspaper, a church and a party. The man who likened UUP leaders to Judas and Lundy. The man who was manipulated by key figures in his party and then booted out when he had served their purposes. The Ian Paisley of 1964 is still there: yet, 50 years on, his party and country have left him behind. Will history be kind to him? I wouldn’t put a bet on it.