Thursday 20 June 2019

Cringe-making Paisley tributes ignore truth

The 'Reverend' bears a heavy responsibility for the bloody prolongation of the conflict, writes John A Murphy

A TEMPORARY incapacity (only physical, you'll be glad to hear) prevented me from commenting last week on Ian Paisley's forthcoming resignation and its implications. But the story rumbles on.

First of all, I was flabbergasted by the fulsome and cringe-making tributes paid to Paisley by leading British and Irish politicians. A diplomatic modicum of saccharine was understandable, but was all that hypocritical gush really called for?

Particularly nauseating was the pious waffle from Northern Secretary Shaun Woodward about Northern Ireland peace and prosperity being heavily indebted to Paisley. This sentiment was endorsed by Bertie Ahern, who praised his new friend as "an honourable and courteous man." Of course, the reputations of Ahern and Tony Blair are curiously bound up with Paisley's, in the context of the St Andrew's Agreement.

Incidentally, part of all this flapdoodle, promoted by those apologists for the Taoiseach who want to get him off the hook of the Mahon tribunal, has been the grossly simplistic casting of Ahern as the messianic deliverer of peace to the North and prosperity to the South. The sober truth is that he was only one of a large number of politicians involved in the long ceasefire-through-St Andrew's process.

Admittedly, his genial personality and his mediator/ chairman skills of the "ah, come on now lads" variety certainly made a contribution. However, Northern peace and Southern prosperity are mainly to be attributed to the working of various dominant factors altogether independent of Ahern, but luckily coincidental with his own arrival in office. Machiavelli notes the central role of Fortuna in political affairs.

But back to the recent assessment of Paisley. Some media commentators were mealy-mouthed, or unintentionally hilarious, like John waters in yesterday's Irish Times, but others pulled no punches in emphasising his malignant and destructive part in Northern politics and society over 30 years or more. This roll of honour includes Brian Feeney (Irish News), Newton Emerson (on RTE Radio 1), Susan McKay (Irish Times), Ruth Dudley Edwards (Mail on Sunday), Diarmuid Ferriter (Irish Examiner) and, not least Eilis O'Hanlon of this parish: her denunciation of Paisley is all the more credible and impressive, given her trenchant opposition over the years to Sinn Fein-IRA.

Which reminds me, Gerry Adams's kind words on the DUP leader were not surprising, really: aithnionn ciarog ciarog eile, and the bitter hostility of the "Reverend" to the civil rights movement in 1969-70 was not unconnected with the rise of the Provos.

I am honoured now to add my name belatedly to those listed above. History will find few redeeming features in Paisley. All his life he spewed out hate-filled sectarian rant from platform and pulpit -- as a Christian minister, mar dhea! He bears a heavy responsibility for the bloody prolongation of the conflict, and for the misdeeds of loyalists who had the murderous courage of his bigoted convictions. His final rise to power was the outcome of a single-minded personal and dynastic ambition which took no prisoners and which ruthlessly kicked aside the moderates and the compromisers in the unionist communities.

This was the course he relentlessly pursued all the way from the Terence O'Neill days through Sunningdale (1973) and the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985) to the Belfast Agreement (1998), which he denounced as "a partnership with the men of blood".

And despite some hasty revisionism from Ahern and co, Paisley underwent no Damascene conversion at the end. The St Andrew's Agreement did not involve any change of heart, any remorse or any repentance -- simply a cynical calculation that this power-sharing deal was the best that could be secured in the interests of his cause. Not surprisingly, this is a mirror image of the mindset of his partner-in-chuckles.

Incidentally, Paisley's denunciation of early compromises is in a certain historical tradition. Henry Flood denounced Henry Grattan's achievement of legislative independence in 1782, because he (Flood) hadn't secured it. It is similarly arguable that Eamon de Valera found fault

with the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, because it wasn't his achievement.

It has been (unfairly) said of a certain European nation that it knows only two modes of expression -- the jackboot and the whine. So with Paisley, the bullying bigot has alternated with the amiable buffoon, the latter role predominating in later years when the former had done its work.

His "charm" has apparently worked on people who should know better, inducing a forgive-and-forget amnesia about his sinister side. The chuckles are part of the charm, causing (indeed, guaranteeing) the familiar nervy giggles from the Deputy First Minister. In reality, Paisley's chuckles may be no more than senile guffaws, a phenomenon known to geriatricians. As a contemporary of the DUP leader, I speak with some experience here, so I'm not accepting any self-righteous complaints about ageism, thank you very much.

* * *

THE phoney geniality at the top of the Executive has had its day. This is just as well, since there has been no corresponding nationalist-unionist thaw at other levels. A hard new realism will be welcome. The DUP will be strengthened rather than weakened by Paisley's departure, as has been pointed out by that shrewd commentator, David Adams.

Meanwhile, the doc has reverted to his old bragging form, talking about having smashed Sinn Fein, and taunting them with having abandoned republicanism, and now being "part of British government".

He has also answered a question SF have been very coy about: "He knows I'll not be shaking hands with them, and that's it."

The fissures in the fragile St Andrew's Agreement (a pragmatic arrangement without any reconciliation or mutual trust) grow more evident by the day. They include the wrangle about devolving policing and justice; rows about symbols, flags and commemorative ceremonies; loyalist contempt for the Irish language; the continuing existence of IRA structures, notably "the Army Council" -- a matter of concern as well for us in the Republic, one would have thought; republicans refusing to co-operate with the Eames-Bradley investigation of the Troubles; unionist revulsion at Martin McGuinness's outburst on the Eamon Dunphy programme; and so on.

Gerry Adams has complained that unionist intransigence on policing-control devolution and other matters may well discourage foreign investment, to the detriment of the Northern economy. Irony of ironies! This comes from a leader of the organisation which did its utmost to wreck that economy in the 1970s and 1980s by such patriotic acts as repeatedly disrupting North-South rail lines and blowing up the electricity inter-connector.

Peter Robinson, Paisley's heir apparent, has already made it clear during the last week that SF would not be the preferred coalition partner of his choice.

However, he looks forward to close co-operation with the Republic now that we no longer have territorial designs on the North. (Indeed, it was in the interests of better North-South relations that some of us campaigned hard and long to replace the old Articles 2 and 3.)

But Robinson seems to be untroubled by the renewed threat to the North's constitutional position coming from SF, his partners in Government -- a far greater danger than the continuing existence of the shadowy IRA "Army Council".

At the recent Ard Fheis, Gerry Adams announced a fresh drive for "reunification", which he may delude himself into believing will happen by the god-year of 2016. A "high powered task force", if you please, will be set up to help achieve this goal, mobilising the support of "the Irish diaspora" (Irish-Americans once again!).

Now all this may be so much empty rhetoric to help prevent further defections to the ranks of republican "dissidents", but it is in any case a short-sighted and irresponsible development. It exposes the central ambiguity at the heart of the Belfast and St Andrew's Agreements which guarantee Northern Ireland's constitutional place in the UK.

What hope of stability, still less of reconciliation, can there be for the Northern Executive and Assembly and the wider community, if the SF partners-in-government are vowing afresh to undermine the constitutional status quo?

John A Murphy is Emeritus professor of Irish History at UCC

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