The Reverend Ian Paisley had a lengthy career full of discord and division, religious conflict and political confrontation, which spanned the course of the Northern Ireland Troubles. And yet in his utterly astonishing final phase, he became a peacemaker, turning a somersault which landed him in government with one of his lifelong enemies, one-time IRA commander Martin McGuinness.
Arguments will continue for decades as to why exactly this road-to-Damascus conversion came about, but perhaps the key factor was that, after decades as the agitator, in 2004 he finally found himself as the leading figure within Ulster unionism and therefore in line for the post of First Minister.
For decades he had mercilessly harried those in mainstream Unionism and the major Protestant churches he considered too soft, too ecumenical and too accommodating. This was, after all, the man who had declared: “Are we going to agree to a partnership with the IRA men of blood who have slain our loved ones, destroyed our country, burned our churches, tortured our people and now demand we become slaves in a country fit only for nuns’ men and monks’ women?”
Since the 1960s he had been a towering figure, spending decades as Northern Ireland’s most prominent and outspoken Protestant, both in religious and political terms. He had a huge appeal for many of his fellow-Protestants, who looked to him as a source of strength in times which they viewed as changeable, insecure and dangerous.
The charge against him, levelled by many within Unionism and most outside it, was that he first helped start the troubles and then helped to keep them going through incendiary anti-Catholic and anti-nationalist rhetoric. He dismissed such allegations with his trademark guffaws and counter-attacks, brushing aside allegations that his intemperate style could have cost lives and made reconciliation much more difficult to achieve.
To accusations that he fostered disharmony and helped keep the two communities apart, he cheerfully entered a plea of guilty. During one sermon he summed up his philosophy: “If you compromise, God will curse you.”
Ian Richard Kyle Paisley was the son of a Baptist preacher. Ordained a minister by his father, he went on to become moderator for life of his own sect, the Free Presbyterian Church. In the 1960s he became a formidable street demagogue before turning to party politics.
He came to the fore when his threat to remove an Irish tricolour flag from republican premises on Belfast’s Falls Road spurred the authorities to move in and seize the offending flag. Many were injured in the resulting two days of rioting between republicans and police. It was the first of scores of Paisley agitprop stunts which he staged, first against the Catholic church and later against the civil rights movement.
It was an extraordinary career, encompassing the pulpit, marches and rallies and two brief spells in jail, a career packed with incident and drama, with a thousand demonstrations, diatribes and walk-outs. He was a major cause of the break-up of the one-time monolith of the Ulster Unionist party, which had successfully acted as a broad church for almost all strands of Protestants and Unionists.
When Paisley first launched his attacks on that party it was routinely described as a monolith. By the time of his death he had helped reduce it to a shambles. Terence O’Neill, Unionist prime minister in the 1960s, struggled to refute his accusations that Unionism was going soft. Though Paisley was at first derided as a pantomime demon, his success at the ballot box demonstrated that he had political as well as rhetorical clout.
Other troublesome figures had been bought off by being brought inside the fold. But since Paisley was not interested in joining any team there was no real way for O’Neill or anyone else to silence his disruptive dissent. He staged an almost ceaseless series of demonstrations, among them a protest against the lowering of the flag on Belfast City Hall to mark the death of Pope John XXIII. He led a thousand supporters in a protest against “the lying eulogies now being paid to the Roman antichrist.”
His flair for articulating and amplifying the deepest fears of many Protestants meant that he harvested votes in large numbers. He first formed the Protestant Unionist party and later the Democratic Unionist party, which was to constitute a force in Unionist politics throughout the Troubles.
In 1966 he launched the Protestant Telegraph weekly newssheet and the Ulster Constitutional Defence Committee, a “united society of Protestant patriots”. From this sprang the Ulster Protestant Volunteers, whose members featured in many street clashes. In the same year there were violent scenes during a Paisley demonstration at the Presbyterian General Assembly meeting in Belfast.
The fact that the media were universally antagonistic towards both his beliefs and his methods was in the end of little moment to him: he realised at an early stage that any publicity was good publicity.
Although the media tended to portray him as an anachronistic crank, it became obvious that he had substantial support within a section of rural and working-class Protestants. His mix of religious fundamentalism, political opportunism, personal charisma and talent for self-publicity was a potent one.
When the descent into widespread violence came in the late 1960s the official report into the disturbances by Lord Scarman cleared him of either plotting or organising the disorder. But it commented that his language was “likely to rouse the enthusiasm of his supporters and the fury of his opponents,” noting with regret that the price of free speech was often “exaggeration, scurrility and abuse.” His critics would for the following three decades accuse him of the copious use of such tactics.
By the mid-1970s his DUP was taking an average of 11 per cent in elections, which was a solid base but not large enough to surpass the main Ulster Unionist party. His loud voice and flair for showmanship meant, though, that he was always a highly visible figure.
His unremitting antagonism to any compromise settlement was also a huge problem for London, Dublin and the Ulster Unionists, since any Unionist leader prepared to think of a partnership arrangement knew they had to face his furious anathemas. British ministers who had dealings with him generally found him frankly impossible, none of them ever managing to build him into their attempts to build political initiatives.
James Callaghan accused him of “using the language of war cast in a biblical mould” while Edward Heath called him a demagogue and a wrecker.
Reginald Maudling found him “one of the most difficult characters anyone could hope to deal with” while William Whitelaw marvelled at his ability to destroy and obstruct, his “unrivalled skill at undermining the plans of others.”
Roy Mason remembered him as “an oafish bully, a wild rabble-rouser, a poisonous bigot.” James Prior thought him “basically a man who thrives on the violent scene. His aim is to stir the emotions of the Protestant people. His bigotry easily boils over into bombast.”
Douglas Hurd wrote: “The negative element in his character lay at the centre and drove forward his extraordinary energy. There was nothing positive in his beliefs. He was never a man with whom a minister could do serious business.” Even John Major, normally slow to criticise, described him as mischievous, histrionic, and “hellbent on destroying” his peace efforts.
His own verdict on British politicians was equally damning: “When I consider the drunkenness, lewdness, immorality and filthy language of many MPs, I care absolutely nothing for their opinions. Ulster Protestants are not interested in gaining the goodwill of such reprobates.”
On a few occasions Paisley seemed to be momentarily mellowing, and there were episodes when he unnerved opponents by taking an unexpectedly moderate line. At the time these were generally seen as tactical sallies to eat into Ulster Unionist party support.
His critics also dwelt on the fact that his politics and his religion were inextricably linked to an ego so formidable that it made it difficult for him to form relationships with others on anything close to an equal basis. His insistence on being the boss led him to have his own party, his own church, and even his own personalised version of the Orange Order.
The charge levelled against him by his numerous enemies was not simply that he was anti-Catholic or anti-accommodation but that he coarsened Northern Ireland politics. His instinct of going for the jugular, particularly when dealing with rivals within Unionism, was accompanied by a relish for rude and unpleasant personal attacks. This drove some figures out of politics, and caused many more to shy away from them. A senior diplomat once said of his lack of restraint: “Like all histrionic people there’s only one constraint, and that’s to draw applause.”
Yet he could switch in a moment from growling belligerence to an unnerving charm. He was also a devoted family man. He could on occasion be quite hilarious, either in private or public. These mood swings, always unpredictable, led former civil servant Maurice Hayes to give this thumbnail sketch of his larger-than-life character: “He is a complex personality. I have often thought there are about six Paisleys. Two of them are very nice people, two quite awful, and the other two could go either way.
“He worked unceasingly for all his constituents regardless of religion. True, he could be, and was, a rabble-rouser. He very often filled the atmosphere with an inflammable vapour that other people could and did ignite. In public he often appeared a driven man. In private he could be affable and very amusing.”
All the condemnation never cost Paisley an hour of sleep: “He sleeps like a baby,” his wife Eileen once said. To his mind this was as it should be, since to his mind politics was about confrontation and not accommodation. For another, he was very obviously never in the business of winning friends and influencing people. The only audience he cared about was the Ulster Protestant, and in the process of increasing his support within that enclosed world cared little for what others thought.
With only this limited target audience to bear in mind, he felt free to use language which repelled many who regarded it as coarse and rude. Yet although many found it repellent, many Ulster Protestants viewed it as an acceptable expression of the directness they considered commendable.
Unionism lost its monolithic aspect in the 1960s, in no small measure due to Paisley, and in the years that followed has faced the great question of how to cope with life and politics as the sense of Protestant ascendancy crumbled. Unionist and Protestant politics has perennially been divided into three sections - those favouring accommodation, those opposed to compromise, and those who waver between these two poles. Paisley spoke for most of the anti-compromise lobby, and always had as his aim snatching the don’t-knows away from the Ulster Unionists.
He proved the greatest individual vote-getter Northern Ireland has ever known. Although his party finished second to the Ulster Unionists in almost every election, for the last two decades of the last century he never polled less than 12 per cent of the overall vote, and on occasion reached 30 per cent.
His best performances came in European elections, when everyone could vote for him personally. The result was a recurring triumph for him, as in every European contest he trounced the Ulster Unionists and took a clear majority of Unionist votes.
These victories, in addition to boosting his ego, served as ominous reminders to successive Ulster Unionist leaders that many of their voters harboured Paisleyite sympathies. The result was to create a permanent inhibition on leaders who contemplated accommodation.
For most of his career Paisley stressed that he was dedicated to the dictates of the ballot box: he even incorporated the word “democratic” into the name of his party. Yet everyone knew that he had on occasion flirted, and more than flirted, with dark paramilitary forces operating outside the law.
His dubious associations fell into several phases. In the late 1960s some of his early followers took to activities such as setting off bombs. Rumours that Paisley was acting as a mastermind remain unproven and are probably untrue.
Then in 1977, after years of condemning the Loyalists which had killed hundreds of Catholics, Paisley somersaulted and linked up with them to stage a large-scale strike. When the stoppage failed he coolly reverted to denouncing his one-time allies as murderers who besmirched the Protestant cause.
In the mid-1980s he closely associated himself with a technically legal but highly dubious group, Ulster Resistance, which staged theatrical rallies attended by uniformed men. Paisley himself, to thunderous applause, donned the organisation’s red beret. By the time some members strayed into illegality, however, he had dissociated himself from the whole thing.
This familiar pattern of a feint in the direction of militancy, followed by a hasty retreat, did not alienate Protestant voters. It did, however, generate wry smiles among nationalists, as he criticised republicans from a posture of pure pacific democracy.
The emergence of the Northern Ireland peace process posed a major challenge to him, since it held out the prospect of less confrontational politics. When that process emerged in the 1990s he was past retirement age, and though still burly had lost some of his bison-like bulk and some of his old decibels. A Belfast sound recordist noted: “His overall level has gone down but he still manages the big bursts.” He attacked the process at full volume.
In the early years of the process the primary champion of the Protestants was the Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble, who was prepared to negotiate and to form a government with Sinn Fein. Paisley condemned this at every turn, but he showed discreet agility in adapting his own policies to the changed situation. He allowed two of his people to become ministers in the new administration, heading departments but refusing to attend meetings with Sinn Fein.
This semi-detached status worked well for the DUP, which increased its vote in successive elections while Trimble’s party steadily lost ground at the polls. Part of this was due to the old Paisley cunning, and part to the fact that the DUP succeeded - where Trimble failed - to build a professional and effective party structure.
Many of those who shifted their vote from the UUP to the DUP may have assumed Paisley would put an end to negotiations. But once out in front the DUP proved ready even eager to talk, refusing to meet Sinn Fein face-to-face but dealing via the government. It is this superior organisation and the abilities of acolytes such as Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds, which meant that the DUP has remained the primary Protestant party.
That will be one part of his epitaph. Other parts will be full of irony: that the great opponent of the peace process should have become one of its main political beneficiaries, that the great opponent of accommodation should in the end come to countenance a deal, so personally close to Martin McGuinness that the two became known as the Chuckle Brothers.
He was in his eighties by the time his party, and indeed his church, decided the time had come for him to step down, and he was scalded when the men in grey suits tapped him on the shoulder. He expressed intense bitterness in his last TV appearances.
His was an outsize personality, a man who put little or no effort into winning friends and influencing people outside the Unionist community and who therefore collected a huge number of enemies. His late apparent openness to reconciliation will be remembered; but his long-standing reputation for bigotry, intolerance and trouble-making will not soon be forgotten. DAVID McKITTRICK
Ian Richard Kyle Paisley, priest and politician: born Armagh 6 April 1926; First Minister, Northern Ireland Assembly 2007–08; cr. 2010 Lord Bannside of North Antrim; married 1956 Eileen Cassells (three daughters, two sons); died 12 September 2014.