An amazing conversion? The Big Man makes a long journey
He is the man who says 'no', the hardline Protestant who detests the Catholic Church and refuses to negotiate with Sinn Fein. Yesterday, Ian Paisley chatted with the leader of Ireland's Catholics. Is he about to do the same with republicans?
Ian Paisley, now in his 81st year, has lived such a long and eventful life that he has seen Ireland north and south change dramatically - politically, economically and in so many other ways.
Transition has been on such a scale that it has even changed him, leading him to shake hands yesterday with Archbishop Sean Brady, head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, which Mr Paisley has so often denounced as anti-Christian. The Archbishop found the encounter "helpful and constructive," while Mr Paisley said it had led to "a very good and useful exchange of views". They have agreed to meet again.
Yet the Paisleyite faithful need not worry: the old Protestant warhorse's anti-Catholic instincts are still intact. His website, among many other attacks on the Catholic Church, features denunciations of "the blasphemous mass" and "the filth and guilt of Rome". But while all his old religious certainties remain firmly fixed in place, the gradual fading of the Troubles and the sense of a new beginning have compelled him and everyone else to adapt to changed circumstances.
In fact, the man who has so often been described as a dinosaur has, by exercising his impressive brainpower and reservoirs of sheer cunning, managed to evolve unexpectedly well.
Practically none of Northern Ireland's new era is actually of his making - he fought tooth and nail against its emergence. Yet as the smoke clears after years of violence, he is undoubtedly Number One: head of the biggest party and in complete control of Protestant politics.
He will be the crucial figure at talks to be held this week in Scotland, where London and Dublin will press him to share power with republicans. Sinn Fein has said it is up for it, but Mr Paisley has yet to say yea or nay.
His call will shape the course of politics for years to come. But whatever happens in politics, most people in Northern Ireland are getting on with lives which for the most part have improved immeasurably.
To put it at its most basic, while the worstyear in the Troubles saw almost 500 deaths, the number of of deaths annually has now fallen to about five. These are mostly the work of loyalists, many of them grudge killings or arising from backstreet turf wars.
This toll is the lowest it has been since the 1960s. But the continuing killings, even at such low numbers, is one reason why to date there has been no confident official announcement that the Troubles are over. In truth, the occasional eruption of riots and turmoil, and the persistence of division, means that Belfast does not feel like a normal society.
But then it never did: its outbreaks of violence go back a couple of centuries, the city's distinctive sectarian geography meaning that modern disturbances often take place on the very same spots as in the early 1800s. In other words, some of the city's least desirable traits seem to be endemic. But having said that, the majority of its citizens have benefited significantly from the recent fall in violence.
Deprivation levels are probably lower than ever, with unemployment down and decades of slum clearance creating high standards of housing stock. Public expenditure has been high for decades, with Northern Ireland receiving billions from Westminster each year.
Over the years both Labour and the Tories took the view that money had to be poured in to keep afloat a local economy which might otherwise have been in danger of collapse due to the violence. There has been a lack of overseas investment and a shortage of local entrepreneurial spirit.
The money from London kept the place going, but recent times have seen a cold Treasury reassessment and a new sense that the time has come to staunch the money flow. There is local nervousness that the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, as prime minister, may prove less financially sympathetic than were Tony Blair, John Major and Margaret Thatcher.
But in the meantime, Belfast has sprouted splendid new buildings, both for business and entertainment. Locals go to see the Buena Vista Social Club and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Those who wish to hear of conflicts still in spate, while their own is shrinking, flock in their hundreds to hear The Independent's Robert Fisk.
There are new roads, expansive plans for new dockside developments, new restaurants and new "super pubs". It may not have the rocket-speed growth of Dublin's Celtic tiger, but the improvement has been steady.
In particular life remains good for the middle classes, who have British standards of living coupled with quality free education for their children until the age of 18. There are lots of BMWs and Mercs, lots of holiday homes in Spain or Donegal, lots of trips abroad, and big houses now topping the million-pound mark.
In the 1960s, when Ian Paisley started out on his controversial career, the middle class was overwhelmingly Protestant. Today a new Catholic middle class has found its place in the sun, and has its fair share of the BMWs.
This is partly because, almost under cover of the Troubles, London introduced several important and highly effective tranches of anti-discrimination legislation. This in turn was because the Catholic civil rights movement of the late 1960s decisively won the argument that they were unjustly being denied houses and jobs.
Mr Paisley vehemently opposed that movement, and the idea of any concessions to Catholics, sometimes leading counter-demonstrations on to the streets to oppose civil rights marches. "Ulster is Protestant" was one of his war cries. Today a remarkable inversion has taken place, with Catholics no longer complaining of wide-scale discrimination. Alienation has become much more of a Protestant phenomenon.
The poorer sections of the Protestant working class include many who have become almost completely detached from the education system. At the same time, many Protestant middle-class students are opting for English and Scottish universities.
At colleges in Dundee and Glasgow, for example, they make up substantial parts of the student body. The problem with this is that, having gone across the water, they tend not to return.
This has created what has been termed a "brain drain", denying Belfast many potentially valuable young people. The phenomenon is so striking that it has its own acronym - Nipples - signifying: "Northern Ireland Protestant Professionals Living in England and Scotland." The Catholic working class has, meanwhile, become much better plugged in to the education system, though it has not received any huge benefit from any peace dividend. The peace process has produced no high-profile factories, for example.
Yet it has certainly acquired a distinct new sense of empowerment which has been crucially important for a section of the community which for decades morosely regarded itself as politically impotent.
Today it is intensely proud of Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, who have become internationally known figures with real clout. Last week, the two republicans were to be found, as so often, negotiating with Tony Blair at Chequers.
Sinn Fein is the largest nationalist party and the chances of a political settlement rest on a Paisley-Adams deal. When the two men became active in the 1960s, the concept of an accord between them was beyond anyone's wildest dreams.
For much of the turbulent period that followed the two men joining the cause, Sinn Fein was little more than a cheerleader for IRA violence, while Paisleyites maintained a rigid opposition to any arrangement involving even the most moderate Catholics, let alone Irish republicans.
Many were dismayed and appalled when the past few elections established beyond all doubt that Sinn Fein and Mr Paisley's Democratic Unionist party were top of the heap in their respective communities. But in today's Belfast there is hope where before there was none, and the hope has grown that the two hardline elements can thrash out a deal.
For one thing, the two parties have both edged towards the centre in their successful efforts to steal the clothes of more moderate rivals. Mr Paisley no longer says "Ulster is British", while Mr Adams no longer demands "Brits Out". Mr Paisley has watched as his old enemies have lost much of their menace. He still regards the Catholic Church as appalling, but the IRA, the Republic of Ireland and his rivals in Unionism have lost most of their potency.
It is now up to him to decide whether to go for a deal or to leave things as they are, in the present unsatisfactory stalemate. He could well say 'no': his meeting with the Catholic Archbishop might, with hindsight, turn out to be a conciliatory feint designed to balance an eventual refusal to reach accord.
The fact that there is a new Belfast might work either way in fashioning his decision. There is a widespread sense that it is time to move on. But there is also a strong section of Protestant opinion which looks at the modern scene, reckons the Troubles are about over and accepts that the IRA is departing the scene.
What this leads to in many is a complacent conclusion: since the Troubles are over and the guns of the IRA have gone, why not leave things as they are? All this is doubtless mirrored in the internal Paisley thought processes. He could simply do nothing, or he might go for a deal with himself as First Minister, the leader of Ulster. The old man's choice will be critical for the new Belfast.
Against Rome, if nothing else: a litany of curses from the Reverend
"I recognise what seed she [the papacy] is of. She is the seed of the serpent, the offspring of Belial and the progeny of hell. Her eye gleams with the serpent's light. Her clothes reek of the brimstone of the pit. The leaders of the now apostate reformed churches are tripping over one another to slabber on the Pope's slippers." (from his 1982 book 'No Pope Here')
"I renounce you as the Antichrist" - Ian Paisley to Pope John Paul II, who was addressing the European parliament in Strasbourg in 1988.
Mary Queen of Scots "was a papist of the papists, a true offspring of the Roman Harlot, with a warped mind and idolatrous soul".
"Woe to the Royal House of Britain for flirting with the Roman Harlot! Woe to the Government of this United Kingdom for parleying with popery! Rome may paint her face and attire her hair like Jezebel of old, but I still recognise the murderous wrinkles on the brow of the old scarlet-robed hag."
"There is no night as dark as papal midnight. No dungeon so loathsome as that of the Woman of Babylon. No chains so fettering as the chains of the Antichrist of the Seven Hills. No slavery so degrading as the slavery of the Mother of Harlots."
"The dog will return to its vomit. The washed sow will return to its wallowing in the mire, but by God's grace we will never return to Popery."
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