Peace? Not if he has anything to say about it

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IS IT right to talk to him? He has a certain magnetism and presence, which convinces some gullible journalists that he is at bottom a good man. His party, calling for a 'ring of steel' round the other community, still won 13 per cent of the vote in Northern Ireland at the last election. He himself has been dogged by accusations of involvement with men of violence, but that is rumour and out-of-date. The big question, though, is whether he is too drenched in hatred really to engage in the search for peace. The Prime Minister, for one, thinks so.

I refer to Ian Paisley. Almost all the other participants in the uneasy shuffle-dance towards a settlement have some direct interest in a deal being done soon. John Major needs a big political success to rescue his reputation. The Official Unionists are deeply alarmed by their lack of influence on the next generation of young anti-Catholic hardliners. The IRA and Sinn Fein now seem to recognise that the 'armed struggle' will not, and cannot, unite Ireland. The Irish government has staked a lot on the initiative that began with the Hume-Adams talks.

Across the land there is the distant moaning of ice splintering, of old verities softening. Except, it seems, with the Rev Paisley and his hardline followers. There they are still, living in a parallel world

dominated by the fearful spectacle of the Anti-Christ in Rome - a world in which the European Union is genuinely held to be 'beast-ridden by the Harlot Catholic Church', a world wallowing with masochistic delight in the rhetoric of betrayal and isolation. As the mutterings grow louder among the peace parties, one foul, unmistakable bellow still echoes across the swamp.

Around Westminster, you can hear plenty of weasely apologias for Paisley. Oh, but you have to remember what his people have suffered. Think of the 160,000 who voted for him in the last European elections. Oh, but he's a marvellous constituency MP. Oh, but he's a doting husband and loving father. Oh, but he's a marvellous old-time ranter, with a talent for quips. Oh, but he is (God save us) 'a character'. All that may be true but it is all wholly beside the point. Here is a man soaked in bigotry, too rarely confronted, implacably hostile to compromise. Here, to use words he would understand, is a bad man.

If you think all that goes a little too far for a nice liberal newspaper, consider this story, from the biography of Paisley by Ed Moloney and Andy Pollak. The year is 1959 and the place is Percy Street, by the lower Shankill Road: 'Paisley was speaking and he said, 'You people of the Shankill Road, what's wrong with you? Number 425 Shankill Road - do you know who lives there? Pope's men, that's who] Forte's ice-cream shop, Italian Papists on the Shankill Road] How about 56 Aden Street? For 97 years a Protestant lived in that house and now there's Papisher in it. Crimea Street, number 38] . . .'

So the rant goes on. There's a riot. The houses are attacked, shops looted. The next morning Paisley boasts about how well the meeting went but a contemporary accuses him of being responsible for the violence. Paisley replies: 'Not me . . . I was in a car on the way home.'

An old, not particularly dramatic, story - but the technique of stoking hatred while distancing himself from its consequences has been constant with Paisley ever since, through the various outbursts of Protestant militancy and thuggery, to the present day. Earlier this month when Dick Spring, the Irish foreign minister, arrived for talks at Stormont with Sir Patrick Mayhew, there, inevitably, was Paisley. It was outrageous, he said, an attempt to rub Unionist noses in the dirt at a time of grave tension. Now was he there to warn about that tension? Or was he there to increase it, to provoke?

The peace process is moving forward. It will figure prominently in the Queen's Speech today and its political risk dramatically overshadows the legislative proposals on crime, education and deregulation. The Irish and British governments are close together on a twin-track policy of a cessation of violence and a political solution that will not alienate the more moderate Unionists - they have what one official calls 'an exchange of language'. Dublin seems ready to ditch its claims to the North.

But as this goes on, putting increasing pressure on the extremists, the stream of misinformation will flow harder against the peacemakers (who are, according to some Bibles, blessed). Mainstream politicians will have their bona fides questioned and they will be leaked against as part of the struggle for the ear of public opinion. It's already begun. The row over whether a leading Tory talked to Sinn Fein (as it says) or didn't (as Downing Street insists) is part of this struggle and there will be more finger-pointing to come. Journalists will be fed tales of betrayal or lying. And everyone who wants the thing to succeed will have to be restrained about drawing early conclusions or panicking.

This is why the Paisley record - the bitter language, the headline-snatching accusations, the media manipulation - is relevant. He has been going on about how flattering the Prime Minister was about his party's proposals ('imaginative, indeed ingenious') at their last meeting. Since they have been greeted with derision in Northern Ireland, even by Ulster Unionists, this will have roughly the same unsettling effect on republicans that the Sinn Fein talks story has on some Unionists. It rocks the boat.

He rocks the boat. It would be a pretty safe bet that the first news of the collapse of the process, combined with accusations of treachery all round and provocative predictions of loyalist violence, will come from Ian Paisley. They will come, no doubt, at a tense and difficult time. And all that matters is that we recall, when they do come, just where they are coming from.