Tuesday 16 July 2019

The Republic's most important unionist

The Big Man left big footprints over the years on both sides of the border

Flashback 2008.....Thumbs up from Dr. Ian Paisley during his press conference in Cobh Co. Cork. Photo Billy macGill
Flashback 2008.....Thumbs up from Dr. Ian Paisley during his press conference in Cobh Co. Cork. Photo Billy macGill

John-Paul McCarthy

Ian Paisley once published a sermon that dwelt on the idea that "the sea speaks of separation". His analysis climaxed with the image of him standing "at the edge of the sea. I look over its waves, and my loved ones are across in another continent. I know what it is to be separated from them. Nothing separates like the sea. What a barrier the sea makes. What a terrible barrier the sea makes. Separation".

This may well have been a play on the writings of Paisley's most profound mentor, St Paul, the man who killed the first martyr, St Stephen, and who asked pointedly in Romans: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" This image is appropriate because Paisley's own epic career revolved around the enforcement of several vital distinctions or separations.

He ably split unionism itself, first by destroying Terence O'Neill, and then later by manipulating the martial forces that coalesced around Bill Craig's Vanguard. By the end of his career, Paisley would become a hate-figure of the loyalist paramilitaries, and an embarrassment to the more classically-liberal unionists like Robert McCartney.

His most important unionist critic remained David Trimble though, who took time in his Nobel Peace Prize oration to define his project in opposition to those "fanatics who dream of permanently suppressing northern nationalists in a state more supposedly British than its inhabitants actually want".

Paisley would destroy Trimble over the decommissioning issue before accepting office as First Minister of a refurbished Northern Ireland that was co-guaranteed by the Irish Taoiseach.

Strictly speaking, this was not a Pauline conversion, but it was close enough. What of his footprint in the Republic then? Any survey would probably conclude that Paisley was the most influential unionist of modern times, a kind of Presbyterian version of Joyce's O'Connell, "a big giant in the dark". Consider his influence. Paisley was the main reason Garret FitzGerald refused to repeal Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act because he believed television actually augmented his brand of fundamentalism. FitzGerald also directed his book Towards A New Ireland (1972) to Paisley in a rather bizarre attempt to convince his followers that Irish Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism should form a common front against the abortionists and sodomites who ran Roy Jenkins' Britain.

Paisley's successful dismantling of the Sunningdale executive was equally influential in the aftermath. After 1974, most of the senior mandarins in Dublin swore an oath that the next time they rigged something up with the British Government, it was going right down Paisley's gullet. Rendering Irish Government policy Paisley-proof led naturally to a preoccupation with intergovernmental negotiation at the expense of internal dialogue within Northern Ireland. The Maryfield Secretariat was designed to be as impregnable as the sea, which it was for the 13 years of its life. As we saw, Paisley exposed the internal tensions within Ulster unionism itself, but he arguably had the opposite effect in the Republic. Here, he loomed over us like a cloud that blocked out the sun. Paisley is the central villain in this regard in Joe Lee's influential Ireland, 1912-1985 (1989), the crucial figure in fact in stoking "the supremacist instincts" of modern unionism. That kind of indictment showed little interest in pursuing the unionist case against Paisley which, as Trimble showed, was actually more profound than anything we ever managed to offer.

Paisley also has a presence in more abstract areas. Anyone who lingers that bit too long over the sectarian dimension in Irish nationalism, especially during the revolutionary era, is always liable to be accused of disseminating Paisley-ite propaganda, this being a jibe that is designed to close off debate, and one that does justice to the enormity of the Big Man's footprint in our national life.

Paisley is important too at another analytical level. He may well be the central figure in our seeming obsession with judging personalities "in the round" to quote Martin McGuinness' ill-fated phrase during the last presidential campaign. Many will be tempted to plot Paisley's career as a kind of pilgrim's progress. He found his youthful voice while hurling snow balls at Sean Lemass, then went on to destroy Captain O'Neill and Brian Faulkner before submitting temporarily to various legal straitjackets in 1985, 1994 and 1998. But he finally blessed the new consensus in the end.

A 'balanced' assessment thus must end on a positive note. But only the Lord of Hosts knows how to juggle Paisley's lurid, destructive youth and middle-age over and against his elderly emollience. Us mere mortals must simply marvel at the way this Protestant Pearse vindicated Paul's insistence that "my strength is perfected in weakness, when I am weak, then am I strong".

Sunday Independent

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