Ian Paisley: I’d never deny I’m Irish

The Rev Ian Paisley spoke about what it meant to be an Ulsterman
The Rev Ian Paisley spoke about what it meant to be an Ulsterman

In one of his final interviews, Ian Paisley spoke to the broadcaster Mark Carruthers about his identity, his politics and the future of Northern Ireland

Ian Paisley: I would say I’m an Ulsterman. People ask me, ‘Who are you?’ I say, ‘I’m an Ulsterman’. To the ignorant, then, you have to explain what that means, but when I came into the world, the term Ulster was what you were. You were part of the original Queen Elizabeth settlement. I think there is a great interest among the coming generation on this whole issue because there is a change now. Ulster was looked upon as unionism and that is true – but not so much now. I mean, just take sport. Ulster people play rugby, for instance – and there’s an Ulster contribution that we’re putting into what is really an all-Ireland situation. I think there’s a rapid change which really has come about because we have had Northern Ireland.

Alternative Ulsters: Mark Carruthers

Alternative Ulsters: Mark Carruthers

Mark Carruthers: Do you think Ulster identity was viewed differently, though, when we were in the depths of the Troubles? Ulster had a connotation to it which was uncomfortable for many Northern Catholics.

IP: Well, I think the connotation came very strongly under Carson and it was aggravated by the fact that Carson really lost the three counties. If the three counties had been under the settlement, it would have been a different thing. That’s what brought in the row.

MC: That’s interesting. You talk there about Carson losing the three counties rather than Carson saving the six counties. Is that how you see it?

IP: Yes. Well, Carson said that himself. You know, he was very angry about that. I think Carson needs to be recognised by the Ulster people. He was a Dublin unionist.

MC: He was very content with his Irishness.

IP: He was, yes.

MC: That’s the interesting thing. Where does Irishness fit into the equation for you?

IP: Oh, I would never deny I was an Irishman.

MC: You wouldn’t?

IP: No ... the person that says that [denies they are Irish], they are Irish and there have been more generations from Irish roots in them than they’re prepared to meet. The English that came over here were ‘Irish-ised’ very quickly ... I think you’ve got to be honest that the South is not as Irish as it was. I don’t think Ulster will ever be in a united Ireland in our day and generation. I mean, I would say there are more Roman Catholics today who are happy to be Ulstermen.

MC: So what did you make of those individuals who were on the extremes of loyalism who were prepared to take up arms to defend Ulster?

IP: We were always bitterly opposed to that extremist element that we had in the tail of unionism. They were not only extreme in that way but they were extreme in other ways. It wasn’t just anti-IRA, they didn’t like the rule of unionism and they thought they could do better by doing what they did. But it was a terrible mix-up because there were very decent people at that particular time that got warped and they then got tied into it. It was a terrible, lopsided thing.

MC: When we started off this conversation you said you were a proud Ulsterman. How far would you have gone to defend Ulster?

IP: Well, I felt that we had to be shrewd politicians and we had to get the majority on our [side] so that we could sway the British government. The British government had to be swayed and they were swayed.

MC: To what extent, then, do you associate Protestantism with the Ulster identity?

IP: Well, I think it has a very close identity because Ulster unionism is direct Reformation Protestantism, really. The history of unionism in Ireland has really been a history of Protestantism ... [but] there’s more uniting between Protestants and Roman Catholics in all walks of life in Ulster today.

MC: And do you welcome that?

IP: I do welcome it.

MC: In 2007, there you were, taking on the role as First Minister alongside Martin McGuinness?

IP: Aye. Well, Martin did what I wanted him to. I never had any trouble with him ... I mean, he’s very strong. He says a lot of very strong things.

MC: So how difficult was that for you to have to work so closely in government alongside someone with the history that Martin McGuinness has?

IP: It made no difference to me because he was doing things and I was doing things that we both agreed on.

MC: Do you regret any of your more strident pronouncements down the years?

IP: No, I don’t. I think that if I hadn’t been known as a strong man, I could never have done anything. I needed to be strong and I needed to be strong with my own people as well.

MC: But here’s the question for a lot of people: was it worth sinking Sunningdale, with all the misery that came after that, only to come to the table again in 2007?

IP: Yes because it would never have worked.

MC: But if you could go back to 1969 and meet the young, vigorous, outspoken Ian Paisley of then, do you think he would feel betrayed by the Ian Paisley of 2007 who sat down in government with Martin McGuinness?

IP: Not at all. It was the best thing we ever did, getting peace. Look at the lives have been saved through what happened and look at the way the Protestant population took it. No other person could have done that.

MC: So how should history judge you and your contribution to Ulster?

IP: Well, I think the judgment is the results. We have leaders that would have been rejoicing and marching when policemen were shot who tell the people to go to the police station and give information. We have a reasonable fellowship between both sides of the community. It’s not perfect, but there’s no country in which you get perfection after what we have come through and, as I said, we have come through well – very well. I think we’ve a lot to thank Almighty God for. I think there’s a lot of work still to be done. We could be in places with blood running in the streets still, but it’s not. Thank God for it. And Roman Catholic people and IRA people and Orange people – they are all talking together today. They’re producing peace. They are working together and there’s all sorts of committees through the country bringing them together ... Look at all these young children that are growing up. They’ve all to get jobs. I don’t want to see them leaving Ulster. I want them staying and making Ulster the place it should be. So, I think we’ve got a lot to thank God for – but the job is not finished and it’s up to the people who have the responsibility to finish the job.

This edited extract is from the book Alternative Ulsters by Mark Carruthers, which was published last October.

The BBC political broadcaster interviewed 36 people either from Northern Ireland or linked to the Province and asked them all about the Ulster identity.

The book will be republished in paperback next month by Liberties Press, priced £14.99