Rose-tinted view of Paisley needs to be answered

Volte-face ‘a mixture of ego and political tactics’

1998 - Peace settlement talks, Stormont Castle, and the Rev Ian Paisley ..... In whose interest? Photograph: The Irish Times

1998 - Peace settlement talks, Stormont Castle, and the Rev Ian Paisley ..... In whose interest? Photograph: The Irish Times

 

It is surely ironical that the deluge of eulogies, albeit qualified, heaped upon Ian Paisley came in the same week that First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson declared the key features of the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements “no longer fit for purpose”.

The irony is that it was Mr Paisley’s belated endorsement of those arrangements that earned him such a good press as the bigot become peacemaker, the Doctor No who said Yes, the firebrand who quenched the flames – and that the eulogies came just as his anointed successor was declaring those very arrangements a failure.

(For Irish Times readers there was also the exquisite irony that Fintan O’Toole’s excellent demolition of the Irish habit of making death (of political leaders) an opportunity for instant revisionism, was followed days later by that writer absurdly bracketing Paisley as a preacher-politician with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and borrowing Mrs Paisley’s description of her husband as a Moses, in so far as he led his followers, “if not to the promised land, at least to a land that holds some promise”.)

The premise for all this is that the “peace process”, meaning the two agreements and the institutions set up under them, is indeed working and leading to a land of some promise, and that Paisley had come to believe that and intended to make them work.

The Belfast Agreement in 1998 was an armistice facilitating an end to violence, not a peace treaty laying out a solution to the underlying problem. The best hope then was that the extraordinary and convoluted mechanisms it created obliging vehemently opposed sides to work together, would transform relations, enabling progress towards normal democracy.

Mr Robinson

Sixteen years on, with the Assembly and Executive in operation for the last seven of them, that has not happened; now Robinson says it is not going to. Those increasingly sceptical of the whole process see Paisley’s volte face in 2006/7 as something other than a change of heart. Rather it was a mixture of ego and political tactics, prompted both by increasing age, and a realisation that the “settlement” was, in the short to medium term at least, indestructible. He had the power by 2007 to derail it but that would mean a return of direct rule from London, with, inevitably, an increasing input from Dublin – the worst possible outcome from his point of view.

On the other hand, as the leader of the largest party in the Assembly he could be first minister and well placed to resist Dublin interference and frustrate nationalist machinations. But that would mean sitting in government with terrorists, or people he believed still were. This would be an abandonment of the fundamental principle of his opposition to the Belfast Agreement and to his assault on David Trimble and the UUP.

The fig leaf of the modest amendments to the Belfast Agreement achieved at St Andrews was a very scanty one; certainly not big enough to satisfy a preacher who had constantly declaimed that there could be no forgiveness without repentance. How often had he used the parable of the Prodigal Son to hammer home the message that redemption was secured by admission of guilt and repentance for sin? No such offer was on the table from Sinn Féin.

Did the deal

Yet Paisley did the deal. Was it a leader determined to implement a “settlement” he despised, or an 81-year-old man with an ego to match his oratory who saw the job of prime minister of Northern Ireland as his ultimate triumph over all those who had long despised him as an outsider, as a Bible-thumping preacher and a tub-thumbing rabble rouser.

It was also a job that would open doors from Downing Street to Pennsylvania Avenue and to the House of Lords, and in the end, win him eulogies in the obituary columns. Dennis Kennedy is a former deputy editor of The Irish Times

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