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North's strongest politician changed face of unionism forever


Ian Paisley before Local Council Elections where he announced his Smash Sinn Fein Campaign

Ian Paisley before Local Council Elections where he announced his Smash Sinn Fein Campaign

Ian Paisley before Local Council Elections where he announced his Smash Sinn Fein Campaign

IAN PAISLEY's political career was a resounding success. In April 1969 he ran his first parliamentary campaign against Terence O'Neill, Northern Ireland's bridge-building prime minister, in the Bannside seat for the Stormont Assembly.

A bridge, Paisley reminded the electorate, goes over to the other side; in this case the Catholic Nationalist side. O'Neill invited the electors to reject "this simmering boil of nastiness". Paisley did not win, but he ran O'Neill close and damaged him.

After that Paisley won every election he fought and in the European elections established himself as the strongest politician in the North. He wore down the Ulster Unionist Party, the hegemonic force in Unionism since 1921, until he defeated it in the 2004 Assembly elections. In the early 70s, Daithi O Conail, the IRA leader, used to assert, with irony, that the IRA would not assassinate Paisley because of his "services" to the movement. But it was the IRA that swelled Paisley's vote.

Paisley's bark was always loud - frightening to some and reassuring to others - but that bark was always louder than his bite. In 2007 he finally took O'Neill's position as First Minister in the North and thereby gave enormous stability to the peace process.

His political career was assisted by a ready wit and, when he employed it, an avuncular presence; it was employed most famously to smooth relations with Martin McGuinness, his co-premier in the North.

But Paisley's indisputable political success needs to be placed in the context of changes in the religious life of the province with which he identified so strongly. Protestant Ulster is celebrating the centenary of the Unionist opposition to Home Rule in the 1912-1914 crisis. The remarkable thing about these enactments is the absence of the clergy.

A century ago the Protestant and Catholic clergy in Ireland had no difficulty believing that God supported or opposed a political project and that, in this respect, they knew the mind of God. In the North today the clergy do not want to make such a claim and, if they did, few would believe them; this is one of the neglected clues to the ending of the Troubles.

Paisley was shrewd enough to know that tens of thousands of Protestants who never darkened the door of a church voted for him because he was the best way of asserting hostility to the claims of Irish nationalism and republicanism. This was his card. No settlement was stable that did not have his support. Paisley was, in the end, a major player in a much more secular political world.

Paul Bew is Professor of Irish politics at Queen's University, Belfast

Irish Independent