Former street preacher and agitator now full of years and of self-satisfaction
Opinion: Having made a career smiting his enemies, Paisley has ended up smiting his successor
Beauty and the Beast. Ian Paisley with his successor, Peter Robinson, and (centre) Nigel Dodds. Photograph: PA
It will take time to see if Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson, and the DUP, are damaged by being bad-mouthed on television by the party’s 87-year-old founder and his wife. But the attackers have surely damaged themselves.
Eileen Paisley, Baroness of St George’s, chose to emphasise her son Ian’s exoneration on allegations of improper financial dealings by alluding to Iris Robinson’s affair with a 19-year-old and subsequent disappearance from public life.
“His [Ian’s] wife never did anything, nothing wrong with his character. We know where the sleaze did come from. It came in the home of the man who’s now leader himself, Peter Robinson. It came from his family, not from the Paisley family.” Lord Bannside bludgeoned the point home with “I’m a very happy man. My wife still lives with me and loves me.” Classy stuff.
The Paisleys paint Robinson as author of a long-planned ousting of his predecessor – at 82. So Robinson is now “the Beast” whose “ways are not my ways”, a phrase reminiscent of Paisley diatribes against Catholicism, drawn from the nightmarish visions of Satan’s court in the Book of Revelations. There was comparable intemperance about what they depicted as a putsch from the leadership of his church. “I regret that they do have not the ear of God on this matter,” said Ian. “They assassinated him,” said Eileen.
When they saw the programmes pre-transmission the Paisleys were apparently perfectly happy, clearly unaware that they come across as convinced of special entitlement. Good reporting since has established that they have held on to the spacious manse, though the church had found them a luxurious retirement home, with helipad, on Belfast Lough.
Supposed man of God
Paisley’s has always been a distasteful story. This is a supposed man of God whose career arcs from origins as fiery preacher and street agitator, through decades when his harassment helped to undermine mainstream unionist leaders who attempted compromise with nationalists, to a last phase of global headlines for sharing the top Stormont post with former IRA leader Martin McGuinness, smiling broadly the while. The interviews with Eamonn Mallie now reclassify that as penultimate lap. It was wishful thinking to imagine age had mellowed him.
It was more the case that once the DUP became the largest party the loud-voiced outsider could at last be top dog, swathed in ermine and other accolades. Robinson, in his late 50s, and determined not to be shut out of a new Stormont, needed the Paisley charisma plus his clout in unionism to make a major shift. Unlike David Trimble or Terence O’Neill, there was no Ian Paisley behind him baying anathema.
But the followers who had failed to see it coming were bereft, and he overdid the public bonhomie with McGuinness. Age and illness diminished his memory for a time, and his flair for language. Another person might have recognised that it was time to bow out. For Paisley, and his family, party and church without him are as unthinkable as Rome without a pope.
In the past there were fallings-out, lieutenants cast aside, but attachment to his preaching kept disagreement “in the family”, like the old Catholic injunction to avoid giving scandal. “Come ye out and be ye separate” was the text that underpinned Paisley’s crusades against compromise. It also stoked sectarianism. Protestant clergy who urged cross-community friendship were “ecumaniacs”. When clerical child abuse had yet to be uncovered, Paisley entertained congregations with his trip to Rome to “dung out the Beast”, endless lurid insults, fantasies about sexual shenanigans between priests and nuns, and jibes at one pope after another; John 23rd “man of Satan, man of sin” as he marched to Belfast’s City Hall to protest against the Union Jack lowered on its flagpole to mark that pontiff’s death.