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.
Bruised former devotees debriefed by Ed Moloney and Andy Pollak in their 1986 book testified to his dominance: “He’s referred to as God’s man, a prophet among us.” He foretold doom, but claimed vindication even when particular disasters failed to materialise. That merely meant his warnings had worked – as when the united Ireland Paisley claimed O’Neill was leading towards failed to happen. Moloney and Pollak note that he prophesied the birth of the IRA, but the idea that his prophesies might “be self-fulfilling never occurs to his most devoted supporters”.
He topped the poll in every European election, which meant that more than half of unionist voters chose him to speak for them abroad. In the 1984 election, he took nearly 60 per cent of the unionist vote. His European triumphs alone entitled him to call himself the voice of Protestant Ulster. For most of his life he employed that voice to tell his people they were doomed, and he was their only hope.
Enemies of Ulster
He could be warm and compassionate. But 38 years ago I watched him crouch in his pulpit to imitate a man injured in a car crash, who had written an unflattering book about him. “God withered the arm that wrote against me,” he bellowed, finger pointing skywards. “Thou shalt not touch the man of God.”
Over 30 years he raised at least a dozen “third forces” to “crush the enemies of Ulster”, while indignantly denying any responsibility for the violence of loyalist paramilitaries. In 1964, five years before the Troubles proper broke out, he provoked the worst riot Belfast had seen in almost 40 years. One official report into street clashes said he must “bear heavy responsibility for the disorder”. Another said his “exaggeration, scurrility and abuse” must have been “among the factors increasing tension”.
In the recent programmes he laughed off the suggestion that he must carry blame for the consequences, injuries and jail sentences. “The people who rioted have to pay for that,” he said. “Not me.”
He made his name attacking unionist leaders, and his final performance is an attack on his own successor. The recent interviews demonstrated that, nearly 90 or not, Paisley has lost none of his legendary penchant for nastiness – ably supported by his wife.
Fionnuala O’Connor is a writer, commentator and journalist