Demystifying First Minister Ian Paisley
Last week one of Sinn Fein's leading figures during the Peace Process was wringing his hands about the ditching of Ian Paisley as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Paisley's term as First Minister, wrote Jim Gibney, “has been distinctive for his style and panache. His humour and hearty laughter strikes [sic] a chord with people mesmerised by the change that has come over him in his working relationship with Martin McGuinness”. The pair had given hope to the people, Gibney claimed. “If it was leadership ambition on the part of others then they are shortsighted and confirm by their actions the maxim that for some ‘there is no gratitude in politics' only crass ambition.” By Susan McKay
It is easy to imagine Ed Moloney's dark and mirthless laughter at such a paean. For many years one of Ireland's most distinguished and serious journalists, Moloney is entirely cynical about the peace process. His view of the erstwhile Chuckle Brothers is that they deserve each other, and the central thesis of this harsh, uneven and often brilliant biography is that “the truth about Paisley and the Provos is that they were yoked together from the very beginning.” The question mark at the end of the book's subtitle, “From demagogue to democrat?” is telling.
The beginning of this book is the 1986 biography which Moloney co-authored with Andy Pollak. It is a pity that although Moloney fully acknowledges his part in it, it has not been possible to give Pollak's name more prominence, for the original remains one of the masterpieces of Troubles literature.
Pollak, unafflicted by the egotism of most authors, is unconcerned. He went on to become so committed to the peace process that he gave up journalism to work for its fruition. He was a leading figure in the campaign for a “yes” vote in the Good Friday Agreement, and now runs the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh. “The conversion of Paisley to powersharing is miraculous and the partnership between him and his old enemy, Martin McGuinness, has been wonderful,” he told me. It is probably just as well, then, that he was unavailable to work on the update, for although he admires Moloney greatly, it might have been a battle a line.
Moloney does not speak of miracles. He says anyone who had predicted in 1986 that Paisley and McGuinness would end up in power together at Stormont would have risked “a diagnosis of incurable insanity”. To the inevitible question “why did Paisley do it?” Moloney adds another: “Was Ian Paisley possibly the only member of his own flock who never really or fully believed his own gospel?”
In 1969, Captain Terence O'Neill, prime minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the ruling Unionist Party, addressed the troubled people of his six small counties. “Ulster stands at a crossroads,” he famously stated. “What kind of Ulster do you want? A happy respected province…or a place continually torn apart by riots and demonstrations?” The Belfast Telegraph printed “I'm backing O'Neill” coupons for its readers to return.
Ian Paisley was by this time a rowdy preacher whose anti-catholic rantings and warnings of treachery and the demise of Ulster had already helped to inspire loyalists to violence. He began a campaign to boycott the Belfast Telegraph and went on to organise a massive “O'Neill must go!” rally in Belfast at which he declared that Ulster Protestants would “fight and die” if necessary to defend the Union with Britain. He also announced that he would fight O'Neill for his seat at Westminster in the next election.
Fast forward. In 2006, Paisley spoke at a press conference at the end of the political talks at St Andrews in Scotland. “Today we stand at a crossroads,” he said. “We stand at a place where there is a road to democracy and there is a road to anarchy. I trust we will see in the coming days the vast majority of people taking the road to democracy.” He spoke as the leader of the largest party in the North, and as the leader of the majority of unionists. The DUP published a pamphlet promoting the Saint Andrews Agreement, with a detachable coupon to indicate acceptance or rejection of the deal. This was distributed as an insert in the Belfast Telegraph.
Moloney has a long memory and a gimlet eye for such ironies of history. He notes that in 1970, after he took O'Neill's Bannside seat in a landslide victory, Paisley received a note of congratulation from a hardline unionist he had supported back in 1953. Paisley replied that “the battle is only beginning” and referred his correspondent to verses from St Paul: “And for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel… that I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.” Days before he became First Minister in 2007, Paisley wrote the same Biblical reference on an autographed photograph of his handshake with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
Paisley's idea of “speaking boldly,” Moloney comments, would help ensure that “the battle” would last for the best part of four bloody decades. He quotes the late Gerry Fitt's recollection of Paisley “roaring like a bull” on the street corner.
Paisley's prophecies were, Moloney insists, self fulfilling. Most nationalists would have been content with O'Neill's “milk and water reformism” but Paisley's vehement opposition, expressed in provocative rallies and demonstrations, drove frustrated Catholics to agitate for their civil rights while his Protestant followers grew progressively more violent. Paisley, then, was “midwife” to the birth of the Provisional IRA which was “dedicated to the destruction through physical force of the state seen responsible [sic] for its community's misfortunes”.
Known as a bully in childhood, Paisley always had to be the leader. He split unionism by setting up the DUP, and he fostered splits in the Presbyterian church to set up the Free Presbyterian church. His authority in both was absolute. He cultivated the view that he was a prophet, “God's man for the hour” sent to protect the last bastion of Protestantism in Europe.
However, Moloney shows, Paisley increasingly relied on his young acolyte, Peter Robinson, to develop the strategic side of his ambitions, and, crucially, to get him out of impasses into which his overblown taste for theatrics had led him. Paisley was instrumental in the success of the Ulster Worker's Strike in 1974 when paramilitaries provided the muscle to collapse the Sunningdale Agreement on powersharing, but when he badly misjudged a second strike in 1977, it was Robinson who rescued him.
Paisley was getting a name as a Grand Old Duke of York. Moloney uses a devastating quote which is essential for an understanding of his subject. This is from an unnamed former Free Presbyterian church official who said, “Ian will fight to the last drop of everyone else's blood.” Paisley could shout “Never! Never! Never!” like nobody else.
But it was Robinson who cut the more sinister dash in the red beret of the Ulster Resistance Movement.
It was, however, also Robinson who began to turn the DUP into a normal, modern political party, and this would, ultimately, bring him into confrontation with the old man to whom he was deputy leader for nearly 30 years. “Robinson began his journey by challenging Paisley from the fundamentalist and hardline wing of the DUP but failed,” Moloney argues. “Then he executed a 180 degree political turnabout and now confronted him from the pragmatic, moderate end of the Unionist spectrum, with much more success.” Paisley distrusted his deputy, but needed him.
Paisley made unionism his prisoner, and had seen off O'Neill and every one of his successors. In 1995, he joined in the infamous “victory jig” at Drumcree with David Trimble, lending the Ulster Unionist MP a hardline image which probably secured him the leadership of his party after tight-lipped old Jim Molyneaux resigned. Paisley would later boast that he had been the “king maker”.
Moloney does not, in my view, pay enough attention to the murderous Drumcree years of the late 1990's, when Paisley behaved with appalling irresponsibility. He does not explore in sufficient depth the relationships which developed during this period between the DUP, the Orange Order and the Loyalist Volunteer Force, which broke away from the UVF in support of the Orangemen and in opposition to the Good Friday Agreement.
Despite Paisley's threat to “smash” the 1998 Agreement, which he called a “partnership with the men of blood”, Moloney demonstrates that this marked the end of the road for the old style DUP, quoting Professor Paul Bew on the “new DUP” which was concerned to attract rather than alienate moderate unionists. By 2001, the DUP “having already feasted on David Trimble's vital fluids, could now smell Ulster Unionism's life blood”. (Moloney's style is not for the faint hearted!)
The British and Irish governments abandoned Trimble and allowed the DUP and Sinn Fein to destroy him, along with the hapless SDLP, Moloney contends. The IRA had already been fatally compromised, as he has fiercely argued in his superb and bitter magnum opus, A Secret History of the IRA so all that was left for the governments to do was to win over Sinn Fein by “giving the kids candy before they misbehave”.
Moloney lives in New York now and his occasional Americanisms can be amusing. The pompous Jim Allister is revealed as a “blue diaper baby”. Moloney equates Paisley's 2005 demand that Sinn Fein wear “sackcloth and ashes” with President George Bush's ability to send out messages to his own fundamentalist base in ways that the secular do not register. This, Moloney tells us, is called “dog whistle politics.” As he rightly says, Paisley is a master of it.
His exposition of how Paisley lost the moderatorship of the Free Presbyterian Church is excellent – with Paisley and his wife, Eileen (“Mammy”), overplaying the Moses card and losing. But his treatment of the failure of Paisley's dynastic ambitions, in particular for the eminently dislikeable Ian Junior, is rather sketchy. Moloney could usefully have dwelt more on the remarkable phenomenon of Paisleyism. He's good on Paisley's ability to charm the foolish, and on Paisley's own susceptibility to flattery by the powerful. This book has none of the sentimentality of some of the tributes paid to Paisley in recent weeks.
Moloney's journalistic obsession has been Gerry Adams and what he sees as his sell-out of the republican ideal. At times, though he is never less than authoritative on Paisley, he has a tendency to veer off the trail in pursuit of his old prey. The people who really gave us Paisley as First Minister were the Sinn Fein leadership, “especially” Adams: “They were the people who had ended the IRA's war, who had decommissionned its vast arsenals…” who had “abandoned swathes of republican ideology, who had accepted the principle of consent and the reality of British jurisdiction, and had taken their seats at Stormont.” By contrast, Paisley had been obliged “to sacrifice only his pride to complete the journey to peace. The core of his Unionist politics had been left untouched”.
The St Andrews Agreement is obviously pretty much the Good Friday Agreement with a more Protestant sounding name. Moloney goes further and says it is “in its defining elements, indistinguishable from the 1974 Sunningdale Agreement.” Why, then, he demands, did the IRA and the DUP, who both rejected that deal, condemn more than 2,400 people to die in the intervening years? Former DUP stalwart Clifford Smyth tells Moloney that he now believes that his former leader's “only consideration was to get to the top of the heap”.
This book came out before the events leading up to and including Paisley's resignation, and the final chapter has a rushed, unfinished feel. When he updates it, Moloney may well agree with former Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon, who said that the most revealing comment Paisley made during interviews announcing that he was to go, was “we are inside the building now”.
Moloney's constant insistence on his own superiority over other journalists is tiresome. His general contempt for just about everyone can be dispiriting. However, he has written an important and necessary book