Some of today’s pundits have short memories: Ian Paisley, who has passed at the age of 88, was not always the jovial elder statesman willing to share power with former Republican paramilitaries. When the rest of the United Kingdom first heard his stentorian bellow and often incendiary rhetoric as what were called The Troubles really kicked off in August 1969, he was already a part of Northern Irish politics.
Indeed, the cover of Private Eye issue 186 dates from January of that year; sectarian tensions had been building since the previous summer. Paisley may not have been directly connected to the Loyalist paramilitaries, but anyone who said of his Catholic brothers and sisters that “They breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin” was not looking to pour oil on troubled waters.
It’s true that Paisley eventually stopped thundering “No! Never! Not an inch!” and telling that there would be “No surrender”, but it came years, nay, decades too late. In those intervening years, hundreds died, thousands were injured, and countless lives were turned upside down as hatred and the accompanying violence continued in Ulster, and spread to the British mainland.
Fortunately, some of the punditry has remembered that there was a Paisley before the double act with Martin McGuinness. Ruth Dudley Edwards recalls “His political career consisted mainly of destroying every unionist leader who wanted to make peace with Irish nationalists, his most distinguished scalp being David Trimble, a man of vision and courage, who was downed by Paisley’s tribal appeals to reject the power-sharing deal with Sinn Fein, ‘the spawn of Satan’”.
Tim Stanley considers the way Paisley used his undoubted talents: “At best it was a waste ... Where he should have tried to seek peace and reconciliation, he instead turned brother against brother. Which, in turn, gave encouragement to Irish nationalists to react with even greater violence”.
And for once, Simon “Enoch was right” Heffer is on the mark: “Although a genial, engaging man in private conversation, he could radiate menace and be poisonously manipulative. Above all, he could turn on his characteristic torrent of invective against his opponents with the ease of switching on a light”. That he could.
At the Guardian, Simon Hoggart had prepared his assessment of Paisley some time ago, recalling “He denounced the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985 with what appeared to be a call for the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, to be smote by lightning” before observing that the former rabble-rouser was ultimately flattered by recognition: Tone made him a privy counsellor, Pa Broon sent him to the Lords.
After an often turbulent past, I hope his soul and his family find peace. God only knows, he took long enough to bring it to the people of Northern Ireland.