On November 20, 1964 this newspaper wrote an editorial urging the Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill, to meet his southern counterpart, Sean Lemass, arguing that ‘no danger to the unionist cause would be involved in the meeting, in agreeing Captain O’Neill would show the strength of his position’.
While O’Neill followed this advice, his main rival Ian Paisley believed that what the News Letter was advocating and what O’Neill eventually did was tantamount to treachery.
When O’Neill spoke of the need to build bridges with the Republic, Paisley was quick to respond that ‘traitors are like bridges, they both go to the other side’.
The Lemass meeting was one of Paisley’s first big breaks onto the national stage as he lambasted the moderate instincts of the O’Neill government which he saw as appeasing republicanism and the Catholic Church.
While the majority of the Province welcomed this new relationship with the Irish government and O’Neill won acclaim from a variety of sources including the News Letter for this masterstroke, Paisley on the other hand, like a voice in the wilderness, cried foul.
It was interesting watching his interview with Eamonn Mallie last week defending his position on this issue.
Paisley to this day still believes that his views were born out of principled leadership against what he perceived to be a weak unionist government and an aggressor leader in Lemass.
Yet, Paisley was never shy in using these summits to promote himself as he stood at Carson’s statue in December 1967 and attempted to pelt the then Taoiseach Jack Lynch’s car with snowballs in full media gaze.
The sounds of him howling “no Pope here” were heard as the two leaders shook hands with a slightly bemused Lynch asking O’Neill “which of us does he think is the Pope?”.
Outside of Paisley’s rants about the undermining of constitutional integrity, the two leaders actually never discussed any constitutional issues at all.
What is ironic is that projects like electricity inter-connection and co-operation in economic fields, which Paisley denounced, are not only commonplace but are in fact being pursued with a great deal of enthusiasm by ministers from his own party today.
This is in effect where the tragedy of his position lies today.
Paisley used these minor acts of co-operation in the Sixties to undermine leaders like O’Neill and Faulkner and fuel distrust against what was becoming a more friendly Irish government.
Yet, when he himself attempted to improve relations with his famous handshake with Bertie Ahern in 2007, we now know from these interviews that it was one of the reasons why his party lost confidence in his leadership.
After the removal of the territorial claim and the republican rhetoric, it was still not enough for the DUP to feel comfortable seeing their leader so close to Dublin.
For this Paisley has only himself to blame as he fostered this attitude through his own speeches and actions during his political career.
If moving closer to Dublin undid his leadership, then he is in very good company with the former prime ministers who he himself helped to bring down.
l Dr David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from the University of Ulster