Week 37: Villain – The Rev Dr Ian Paisley

by Jackie_South on September 14, 2014

villain_2_iconThis week, Ian Paisley receives both our Hero and Villain of the Week awards

Ian Paisley led a life that was by and large destructive and deeply damaging to the province he claimed to love.

The coverage of his death this week has focused on the mitigation for that damage: his year as first minister of Northern Ireland where he played a critical role in cementing the power-sharing of the Northern Ireland Assembly and his unexpected ‘Chuckle Brothers’ relationship with Martin McGuinness. That indeed went some way to redress some of the harm, but it is difficult to see how a single year of good can wipe clean the five decades of hate that preceded it.

Whilst the tributes of some of his adversaries, McGuinness and Gerry Adams included, were generous others involved in Northern Irish politics recalled the harm he did. John Cushnahan, former leader of the Alliance Party that was created to try to bridge the gap between the province’s communities condemned Paisley’s marching with hooded loyalists to bring down the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement to share power as ‘fascist’. He led the opposition to the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement (Thatcher’s attempt to defeat the IRA by giving the Irish Government and moderate nationalists a greater say in the province) with purple-faced ranting “Never, Never, Never, Never!”, forcing more moderate unionists to follow suit. He opposed the Good Friday Agreement. He heckled the Pope in the European Parliament calling him the Anti-Christ. He led opposition in the province to the legalisation of homosexuality: “Save Ulster from Sodomy”.

But it is worse than this. Paisley was leading violence against the Catholics before the Provisional IRA started operating. His Catholic-baiting started in the mid-Fifties, organising the loyalist vigilante group Ulster Protestant Action that led riots in the Shankill in 1959. In the 1964 general election, he led the opposition to an independent republican candidate displaying the Irish Tricolour, which led to Belfast’s worst riots since the 1930s. By 1966 he was opposing the naming of the new bridge in Belfast “Queen’s Bridge” as it was too much of a sop to Catholics (he wanted it named after Unionist hero Edward Carson).

So, Paisley already had a history of violence and hatred towards the Catholics before the peaceful Northern Irish civil rights movement was even underway. Let us remember that it was the loyalist threat to Catholic communities and the civil rights movement that originally brought British troops to the streets of Northern Ireland – it was only later that the Provisional IRA sprung up as Catholics sought a more effective defence and in response to heavy-handed action by those troops against the people they had been brought in to protect. Paisley organised violent demonstrations against the peaceful civil rights movement, and chose to go to jail rather than renounce the use of violence.

Clearly, the Troubles were he result of inter-communal tensions in the province rather than just individuals. But leaders make a difference and it is not fanciful that with different leaders the history of Northern Ireland might not have spiralled into violence in the late Sixties and Seventies. And of all those leaders on both sides, Ian Paisley carries the greatest responsibility of all for ramping up that spiral of hate.

In his ‘Hero’ piece, Ray North mused that the IRA did not try to kill Paisley because he was more use to them alive. Indeed, Martin McGuinness has confirmed that was precisely the conclusion of the IRA’s Army Council’s deliberations on the subject. The Provisional IRA might still have arisen without Paisley, but it would never have gained the support it did in the Catholic community without the cycle of anti-Catholic violence and the denial of basic civil rights that Paisley so assiduously led.

Yes, in the end Paisley came good, but largely because he gained acceptance by officialdom that he long craved. But it took 50 years to do so, and arguably saw the loss of 3,500 lives, plus another 47,000 injuries, in the interim.

You can only see Paisley as a hero for this if you are also willing to confer a similar status on former Alabaman governor George Wallace for renouncing segregation and promoting black officials in his final term. For me, both remain true villains for what they did to trample on the rights of the minorities in their respective lands.

Paisley of course was an old-fashioned fire and brimstone preacher. If there is indeed a fiery hell, we can be sure that Doctor Paisley will be feeling very warm indeed right now.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Killingworth September 15, 2014 at 9:57 am

Sorry, Jackie: this is unworthy of you.

After all, Martin McGuinness managed to sign the book of condolences.

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nino September 15, 2014 at 10:41 am

Growing up in the relative safety of mainland Britain, Paisley was nevertheless a towering figure in our lives. Often a frighteningly comic caricature of himself. Having visited Northern Ireland only after the troubles I still felt personally involved through political participation and also through personal knowledge of numerous work colleagues from there. People from both sides of the divide could be the best of friends in London but were forced to actively shun each other if they met in Belfast or Derry. Thatcher’s only concern was to silence Sinn Fein and peace was not really on her agenda. We had the stupid censorship of the actual voice of anyone connected with Sinn Fein whilst the fanatical Paisley was free to shout Never and No till the cows come home. Another hero of the Iron Maiden was Karol Wotylia – not so much a Pope as a fanatical Cold War warrior. The two Popes who succeeded him are still busy trying to clear up the mess he left behind (the burying of reports on paedophilia as well as those on corruption in the Vatican Bank are just the tip of the iceberg). So it was probably opportune that a potential political ally like Paisley should call him the Antichrist to his face. Was he right to do so? Takes one to know one I suppose.

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