There is something wryly amusing about politicians of all hues tripping over themselves to deliver encomiums and hymns of praise for the late Ian Paisley. They all hit the same notes, rushing over his career as an agent provocateur, the dark voice of Loyalist intransigence, and charge straight on to his part in the Peace Process and the power-sharing governments that have followed, singing his praises as a peacemaker. It’s to be expected of politicians who have no wish to dredge up a past still too close in our rear view mirror.
On the other hand, the op-ed writers and the editorialists have no such qualms. In the next few days I’m sure they will pour over a career and a ministry that extends back to the 1940’s. Much of course, will center on Paisley’s central part in the dark Irish drama during the Troubles, where one British minister, William Whitelaw, “marveled at his ‘unrivaled skill at undermining the plans of others”. “He can effectively destroy and obstruct,” said Whitelaw, “but he has never seemed able to act constructively“. We’ll see lots of analysis, much of it centered on this dichotomy, in the days to come.
I warrant that among all the political analysis there will be little discussion of the extent to which Paisley pushed Ulster Protestantism further out from the center to the evangelical extremes. Any drift to “ecumenism”, as Paisley sneeringly termed it, any rapprochement with any sect or religion that did not pass his biblical litmus test, he viewed as heretical. The long term consequences of Paisley and his Free Presbyterian Church has been to move Ulster Protestantism to a much more conservative and evangelical position. There is a great discussion of Paisley’s religious legacy here. In the long run, it may be his most lasting legacy.
There will of course be the comparisons with the fire-eating preachers of Ulster Protestant tradition, with Cooke and Hanna, 19th century firebrands who primed and pointed the loyalist mobs, and sparked them to violence against their Nationalist, or at least Catholic, neighbors. Paisley used just those tactics, then disavowed any responsibility for mayhem, saying it was solely on the heads of the rioters. This would be his tactic throughout the years, priming the switch, then holding his hands up when others denoted the explosion (sometimes literally detonated an explosion). In the end he came to be seen by many working-class loyalists as a manipulator, using them for his dirty work. This in turn spurred them to an independent reaching for political solutions, determined not to be treated as Paisley’s cats-paw nor as the fighting-and-dying arm of “respectable” establishment Unionism. Establishment Unionism in turn, seethed at Paisley’s popularity and what they saw as his uncompromising obstructionism, his bigotry, and his vulgarity. He was a reminder of antecedents they preferred not to recall. Paisley in turn barely concealed his contempt for, as he saw it, a tainted, compromised class, who had almost let “his” Ulster slip away.
In the end, oddly, Paisley strikes me as the last towering charismatic figure of Irish history. As he said ““I would never repudiate the fact that I am an Irishman”. Particularly apt are comparisons to O’Connell and Parnell and even Collins before him, men whose personality and presence were the essence of their political personae. Like them, Paisley was gifted with strength, humor and a facility with words that the time-servers and the gombeenmen politicians who are now eulogizing him can only dream of. He commanded center stage and reveled in it, as did O’Connell. Like both O’Connell and Parnell, he understood that bubbling under the surface of Irish political life were the forces of violence, sectarianism, bigotry and mayhem. Like O’Connell and Parnell and Collins before him, his message was “deal with me. I’m all that stands between you and the demons beneath”. It was suitably biblical in metaphor and all too literal in fact. He could set the forces of loyalism and unionism in motion but couldn’t rein them in. His call-to-arms galvanized his Nationalist and Republican opponents*, as a countervailing force, already primed, now ratcheted up in response to his fear-mongering and promise of loyalist terror. In the end, like his predecessors, big and charismatic as he was, he was powerless against the forces he unleashed. He neither acknowledged his part in bringing the tragedy to the stage nor his part in prolonging it. Maybe today, before his Old Testament God, is the day he answers for that.
*An IRA Chief-of-Staff once called him their best recruiting sergeant.