I am so glad this piece by Susan McKay was published. I was getting sick of this Paisley, the grandfather, full of humour who saved the peace process who kept popping up on Tommy O’Gorman’s reports on RTE. Paisley was a truly immoral man with a malign influence, destroying anything positive in NI for 40 years. Good riddance.
God’s man for the hour finally became a liability
OPINION Paisley was a rabble- rousing dictator, always willing to fight to the last drop of everyone else’s blood, writes Susan McKay
HIS BIG menacing voice boomed through my childhood. We’d hear that bullish roar across the school fields behind our house. That was in the 1960s, when he preached hellfire and damnation for the unsaved in his church on the edge of the local housing estates, on the farther outskirts of Derry’s Waterside. God was not mocked. Oh for a tempest of power!
We’d hear it as well on the television in the evenings, dire daily warnings of apocalypse for the beloved province. Savage denunciations of O’Neill, then Chichester Clark, then Faulkner. Traitors all, and all destroyed by Paisley. Many years later, Trimble was the last to topple. The Lord has wrought a great deliverance!
Some of the boys I went to school with heard that voice too. They heard a call to arms. They were among the crowd that headed up the road to Burntollet with nail-studded cudgels to meet the students from People’s Democracy. One of them had his hand blown off planting a bomb. Others spent years in jail among the loyalist paramilitaries who thought it was their duty to serve God and Ulster by killing Catholics.
It used to be said of loyalists in full, violent spate “the blood is up”, and no one knew better than Paisley how to rouse them. It has been well said of him that he was always willing to fight to the last drop of everybody else’s blood.
His appeal in the early years was greatest among those at the bottom of the unionist heap, who were reared to defer to their betters and to know their place. One Orange Order landlord in the 18th century spoke approvingly of the “stout fellows somewhat lawless” who, in the matter of loyalty, “could not be outdone”. Any notion of class solidarity with Catholics was stamped on. Catholics were the enemy.
Right from the start, Paisley sneered at O’Neill’s plummy big house accent, declared himself one of the “nobodies”. He wasn’t, of course. He was a shrewd and self-interested politician. He encouraged a furious sense of grievance among his followers, as well as cultivating the atavistic sectarianism that allowed them to look down on Catholics at the same time as fearing their treacherous intentions.
The notion that “we are the people” included the notion that Paisley was our Moses, God’s man for the hour, leading his people, assailed on every side by their foes, to salvation. The poet John Hewitt saw that Paisley could not have risen with the rabble alone behind him. His “coasters” from the comfortable middle classes played their part, confiding in the club: “You know, there’s something in what he says.”
He made it impossible for other unionist leaders to move forward, split the party, then set up his own “democratic” one. He sowed dissent among the God-fearing Presbyterians to the point that their church split and he was able to set up his own “free” sect.
The first time I went to hear him preach was in the 1970s in a marquee in the Waterside. I brought my southern boyfriend. We went for idle thrills, but his repeated threats to string up the apostates at the back of the tent had us ashen-faced by the time it was over.
He was a dictator. He threatened “the mailed fist”. He marched armed men up mountainsides. He claimed when Thatcher signed the Anglo Irish Agreement with Garret FitzGerald that she would “wade knee-deep in the blood of loyalists”. He said the peace process was “the worst crisis in Ulster’s history”, and the Good Friday Agreement was a “partnership with the men of blood” and a “prelude to genocide”.
He loved to tower over the brink while others plunged into the abyss. The emergence of the Provisional IRA was perhaps his first self-fulfilling prophecy.
Nearly three decades of bloodshed later, he was warning that “they”, meaning the authorities, had better let the Orangemen down the Garvaghy Road, because otherwise “anyone with any imagination” knew what was going to happen. What happened was the firebombing of a Catholic house in Ballymoney, resulting in the burning to death of three children. – which Paisley duly condemned.
And then, after all the obdurate years of “Never! Never! Never!” and “No surrender!” Paisley agreed to share power with those who make up almost half the population of the North. There was nowhere else to go.
“Today we have begun to plant and we await the harvest,” he said. It was as if he had either just come off some powerful drug, or just gone on one.
For years, politicians in the Republic treated Paisley as a buffoon. In recent times, the Taoiseach has come to like him a lot, for the same reason that Tony Blair did. They looked brighter in the great beam of his approving smile, less tawdry than in the light of other exploits.
There is no doubt he would have hung on had he not been pushed. It wasn’t because the grassroots feels betrayed by powersharing, though. Most have taken to it perfectly well. His determination that the House of Paisley would continue to dominate the DUP played its part in his downfall.