Rev Ian Paisley, statesman?

In likely his final TV interviews, political firebrand the Rev Ian Paisley makes obvious how he wishes to be remembered. Is he kidding himself, wonders Peter Geoghegan

IAN Paisley has come a long way since 1949. That year the novice preacher began a mission in Belfast’s docklands and joined the anti-Catholic Union of Protestants. Nowadays, “the Big Man” sees himself as statesman rather than sectarian rabble-rouser, as the first of two hour-long conversations with the former Northern Ireland first minister, broadcast by BBC Northern Ireland this week, and widely expected to be his last formal interview, attested.

Paisley, especially to outsiders, is often seen as living proof of the transformative power of the Northern Ireland peace process. A firebrand, hardline Protestant whose Damascene conversion to power-sharing with Catholics culminated in assuming power at Stormont in 2007, where he formed such a firm rapport with his deputy and one-time sworn enemy, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, that wags dubbed the pair the “Chuckle Brothers”.

Now 87, and having suffered a series of health scares, Paisley seems to have one eye on what Tony Blair called “the hand of history”. Mindful of his legacy, Paisley took the opportunity of a turn on national television to paint himself as, amongst other things, a misunderstood advocate of civil rights.

“The whole system was wrong, it was not one man, one vote – that’s no way to run any country. It should be absolute freedom and absolute liberty,” the founder of the Democratic Unionist Party said of the tinderbox situation in late 1960s Northern Ireland. He opposed the civil rights movement, Paisley told his interviewer, journalist Eamonn Mallie, because he felt those behind it wanted a united Ireland, something “no decent law-abiding Protestant could associate themselves with”.

The problem for Paisley is that the historical record – much of it captured on the record – casts serious doubts on such irenic imaginings. He did not just oppose the civil rights movement, he actively organised raucous demonstrations against those demanding a freer, fairer Northern Ireland. In 1969, as sectarian strife began to flare on the streets, he was jailed for organising an illegal protest against a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march in Armagh.

Paisley showed a lukewarm commitment to civil rights, too, when, in 1968, campaigner Bernadette Devlin suggested to him that the Unionist state had been unjust and unfair. There had been wrongs, Paisley conceded, but he maintained: “I would rather be British than fair”.

No wonder veteran civil rights activist Ivan Cooper last week described Paisley’s version of his past as “all over the place”.

Cooper, a Protestant founder of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, said: “Never did Ian Paisley issue one word of compassion or one word of understanding for the civil rights movement. And similarly with Bloody Sunday, it was exactly the same.”

While Paisley attempted to present a more emollient self for the television audience, the egotistical, divisive side of his character occasionally bubbled to the surface. Such as the callous comment that the 33 victims of the 1974 Dublin/Monaghan bombings – the highest toll in a single incident in the Northern Irish conflict until the Omagh bomb – had brought the attacks on “themselves” through their support for Dublin’s government.

“At that time the attitude to Northern Ireland of the southern government was ridiculous. I said I had nothing to do with [the bombing] and I denounced the people who did it. What more could I do? I took my stand, I denounced what was wrong, but I could not say to the people just sit down and let them put a rope round your neck.”

Paisley stood by a previous remark that the IRA were the armed wing of the Catholic Church: “Well that’s true, it stands true in history. They have been, the people of the church of Rome, used to further their interests,” he said. This is the same Paisley who, in his younger days, had organised a mock Mass on the platform of the Ulster Hall.

Paisley is “a complex and protean personality who imagines cyclones of blessings, compares himself to the diminutive Mahatma Gandhi,” Northern Irish poet Tom Paulin wrote in the London Review of Books in 1982. Not much has changed 30 years on. The man who founded first his own church and then his own political party, before finally ascending to the highest office in the land, remains a chimera.

“One of the strongest features of Puritanism,” Tom Paulin noted, “is its autobiographical tendency, its passionate self-regard.” Few people embody this inclination to the same degree as Ian Paisley. Over the years, Paisley – who was born in 1926 to an Evangelical father and a mother who was, in his own words, from “a Scots Covenanting home” – has produced dozens of books combining fire and brimstone theology, sermonising and autobiography.

His decision to participate in the BBC interviews also reflects how much his self-regard is still smarting at his being bounced into relinquishing control of the DUP, and the Stormont assembly, to Peter Robinson in 2008. The former head honcho has been a persistent back seat driver ever since. Paisley has not been able not resist the temptation to take a sideswipe at his former number two; in next week’s interview he denies any responsibility for Peter Robinson’s farcical incursion across the Irish border in 1986 as part of protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Robinson has reacted angrily, describing Paisley’s account as “a failure of recollection”. Sources within the DUP said Mr Paisley was among the organisers of the ill-fated invasion, during which a couple of hundred loyalists paraded in the square before being forced back over the border by Irish police.

Paisley has frequently denied any involvement in violence but, as Paulin observed, “a dynamic millenarian rhetoric can inspire men to place actual dynamite under the status quo”. How many loyalist paramilitaries did Paisley’s fiery rhetoric rouse into action? We will never know. But in his BBC interviews Paisley shows no compunction about his involvement with the Ulster Defence Association during the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Strike, the campaign that he led which eventually toppled the Sunningdale Agreement.

It is easy to caricature Paisley as an arch-unionist, but he is probably better described as an Ulster nationalist. His relationship with Britain – and Britishness – has been marked by ambivalence over the years.

“I am shrewdly suspicious of the British government, I don’t put my faith in the British government,” Paisley told Irish Times journalist Frank Millar in 2008, during an on-going impasse over policing in Northern Ireland. “I think the British government would like someone else where I sit, and would make a deal. Well I intend to sit tight… Do you think I have come to 80 years of age to sell my soul?”

Ian Paisley might not have sold his soul, but reaction from Northern Ireland this week suggests that history might not be as kind to the erstwhile DUP leader as he would hope. Writing in the Belfast Newsletter, unionist commentator Alex Kane reckoned that the Big Man had not changed as much as he would like us to believe: “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.”

The “No” politics that Ian Paisley personified for so many years is still alive in Northern Ireland – as the recent aborted Haass peace talks illustrated. Paisley is not the demagogue he once was, but, as these interviews demonstrate, neither is he the uncompromised “peacemaker” he yearns to be.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, 17 January 2014.

The Maze and dealing with the past in Northern Ireland

If ever a country was defined by a punctuation mark, it’s Northern Ireland and the forward-slash. A history of conflict has produced some awkward semantic contortions: Catholic/Protestant, Nationalist/Unionist, and, of course, Derry/Londonderry, that waggish ‘Stroke City’. Less celebrated, but no less contentious, is another double take, the Maze/Long Kesh.

Last week it was revealed that the European Union had, in December, approved a £18m funding package to establish a ‘peace-building and conflict resolution centre’ at the Maze, where the notorious H-Blocks once stood. What to do with the 360-acre site on the outskirts of Lisburn, about ten miles from Belfast, has been a recurrent source of political discord since the prison, built on the former RAF Long Kesh base, was closed in September 2000.

In 2002, the Maze Regeneration Unit was created within the devolved Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Three years later, after a lengthy, torturous consultation process, A New Future for the Maze/Long Kesh was published. The Maze/Long Kesh: Masterplan and Implementation Strategyreleased in May 2006, consolidated the main proposals for the site, chiefly the construction of a sports stadium and an International Centre for Conflict Transformation.

The stadium – a 40,000-seat affair to be shared by Northern Ireland’s three main sports, football, rugby and Gaelic Games – was shelved in the face of significant unionist opposition. Comprehensive plans for the site have yet to be released on foot of last week’s news, but are now expected to include a more palatable, at least to unionists, scheme to rehouse the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society at the Maze, alongside the conflict resolution centre and a residential development.

In October, following a testy exchange in the House, the Stormont Assembly passed a motion recognising ‘the potential social and economic benefits which the utilisation of former security sites, such as the site of the Maze prison, can bring to Northern Ireland’. The motion called on First Minister Peter Robinson to progress development at the Maze, including a conflict resolution centre on the site where ten republican hunger strikers died in 1981, a move previously opposed by Robinson’s Democratic Unionist Party.

Last week, Jeffrey Donaldson, erstwhile anti-Belfast Agreement Ulster Unionist and now DUP MP for Lagan Valley, gave the planned centre a surprisingly hearty endorsement. ‘Far from it being seen as a shrine, it is about looking to the future. The peace building centre can help us look and focus towards the future,’ he said. However, many unionists, including the Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott, are opposed to the proposal, which Traditional Unionist Voice’s sole MLA Jim Allister dubbed ‘a Provo victory’.

The Maze conflict resolution centre, as Laura McAtackney has written, is an attempt to replace the site’s ‘negative associations’ with a ‘physical expression of the ongoing transformation from conflict to peace’. In that respect, the recent fracas over the centre reflects the incomplete nature of Northern Ireland’s own post-Troubles transformation. Almost a decade and a half after the signing of the Belfast Agreement, Stormont still has no functioning anti-sectarian strategy, despite the country’s well-published, sclerotic divisions. Meanwhile, the threat of prosecution from the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team has stymied any prospect of an authoritative account of what took place during the Troubles, as researchers at Boston College recently found out to their peril.

How, or even if, the Northern Ireland’s fractious past is to be acknowledged and commemorated is not just a question for historians and archivists. This year marks the start of a succession of distinctly live centenaries: the Ulster Covenant, signed in 1912; the Battle of the Somme; the Easter Rising; the Civil War; and, finally, the partition of Ireland. As Hegel famously observed, ‘the one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.’

From Family Robinson Woes to Affairs of State

I wrote a comment piece on the political fall-out from the Robinson affair for The Scotsman last week: (Published 13/01/10)

A leading unionist politician in Northern Ireland laid low by a lurid sex scandal splashed across the red tops. Accusations of backhanders from property developers. Political unrest in Ulster’s bible-belt. The plot of The Bad Book Affair, a new novel by Belfast-based writer Ian Sansom published next week, must have sounded pretty far-fetched when it arrived on his editor’s desk – but in the parallel universe that is Northern Irish politics truth really is stranger than fiction.

The scandal that has engulfed Peter Robinson threatens not only to cut short the political career of the Democratic Unionist party leader but could yet bring down the entire Stormont administration. But, unlike so many Northern Irish crises, this one began calmly when, just over a week ago, a select band of journalists were invited to Robinson’s East Belfast home. Briefings are part and parcel of political life but this was no normal ‘meet the press’ evening: instead, holding back tears in his front room, the First Minister explained that his wife of over thirty years, and fellow parliamentarian, Iris had attempted suicide following an affair.

Initially, revelations of Iris Robinson’s infidelity were received with a mixture of incredulity and black humour on the streets of Belfast but politicians from both sides of the tribal divide maintained a respectful silence. It was only with the accusation, made on a BBC current affairs television program, that Iris had borrowed two sums of £25,000 each from property developers to set her 19-year-old lover up in business that what began as a straightforward sex scandal – albeit with Mrs Robinson’s odious statements on homosexuality and hard-line Christian views adding extra spice – morphed into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

That the personal problems of a politician – even the devolved assembly’s most senior – should imperil devolution itself reflects the wider impasse on the issue of policing and justice powers that has paralysed Stormont in recent months. Sinn Fein want control of policing and justice to be transferred from Westminster to Belfast now, if not sooner; the DUP (their erstwhile coalition partners) have thus far resisted such moves, despite Gordon Brown pledging £900 million to smooth the transition.

Amid much publicity on Monday, the DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds announced that Peter Robinson has resigned ‘temporarily’ as First Minister, designating Arlene Foster to take over his duties for the next six weeks. In invoking the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in this way, Robinson has repeated a familiar tactic of his predecessor but one, David Trimble. But while the media clamoured over themselves to admire Robinson’s political nous and speculate on whether or not he has saved his head, two crucial points were widely missed: first, Sinn Fein have given the DUP three weeks to resurrect a deal on the devolution of policing and justice, and, second, Robinson has nominated himself to head the negotiating team to meet their republican counterparts.

Reaching a deal with Sinn Fein is crucial to the short-term future of both the DUP and the current incarnation of Stormont. If no agreement on the transfer of policing is forthcoming then there is every possibility that Sinn Fein will collapse the assembly when Robinson returns from his six-week sabbatical by simply refusing to re-nominate Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister. Under the rules of the Good Friday Agreement, power-sharing only works if both nationalists and unionists can agree to it. In the absence of the majority player in the nationalist bloc the assembly would automatically dissolve and fresh elections held.

Before events of the last week overtook them, the DUP could have faced such elections in reasonably buoyant mood. Despite growing internal dissent from the right of the party and the prospect of losing votes to former Democratic Unionist MEP Jim Allister’s anti-agreement Traditional Unionist Voice, Robinson’s colleagues would have expected to profit by positioning themselves as the party that refused to hand control of policing to former terrorists – a rather spurious claim, incidentally, given that Sinn Fein members already sit on the Policing Board and numerous District Policing Partnerships.

Now the situation facing the North’s largest party is very different. Grassroots DUP supporters include many evangelical Christians who, shocked by the salacious tales emanating from the Robinsons’ door, are likely to abandon the party in droves for Allister’s TUV, while more mainstream voters could return once again to the Ulster Unionist party. Such a split in the unionist vote could quite conceivably see Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party in Northern Ireland, an honour that brings with it the right to nominate their choice for First Minister, almost certainly McGuinness. An administration with the former IRA man from Derry at its head would be anathema to any unionist – triggering another, this time potentially fatal, crisis in Northern Ireland’s fledgling experiment in devolved government.

So what are the prospects of avoiding this doomsday scenario? Relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein, rarely anything more than icy, have plumbed new depths in recent months. The power-sharing partners’ continuing inability to agree a joint anti-sectarian strategy has been decried by David Ford, leader of the moderate Alliance party, and last month McGuinness used a meeting of the North-South ministerial council in Limavady, County Derry to publicly lambast the First Minister for the failure to devolve policing. Robinson, who was standing barely five feet from his deputy on the same platform, looked stunned.

Nevertheless, an agreement on policing is increasingly in everyone’s best interests. And not just to save Peter Robinson or the assembly. In the early hours of last Friday morning, before the radio phone-ins had started to hum with chatter about Mrs Robinson’s dalliances, a car bomb seriously injured an off-duty policeman in Randallstown, outside Belfast. The victim, who was lucky to escape with his life, was a Catholic policeman, the perpetrators dissident republicans hell bent on catapulting the North back to the dark ages.

Regardless of its eventual fall-out, the Robinson affair will not spell a large scale return to violence – indeed on the very day the First Minister was briefing reporters on his wife’s indiscretion the loyalist Ulster Defence Association finally announced that it had decommissioned. However, the next few weeks are certainly crucial for the stability of Northern Ireland. Peter Robinson has bought just enough time to make a deal to save its current political process, though whether he can save it or himself remains to be seen.

Peter Geoghegan