Human beings are very odd creatures, and Ian Paisley was one of the oddest. He was bigoted, narrow, harsh, and vicious. That view of him is clearly delineated by Ruth Dudley Edwards on her Telegraph blog here.
Every word of it is true. There’s a lot wrong with such people, and they often cause great unhappiness around them. But there is also a very refreshing honesty about them — an honesty that extends to the kind of vapid benevolent-sounding clichés that most of us employ or accept on occasion.
I was present as a reporter in the House of Commons near the end of James Callaghan’s reign as prime minister. He and Paisley had an exchange on some forgotten topic which “Sunny Jim” tried to tie up neatly with a Biblical reference — it went something like this:
“Let’s not quarrel further on this,” said the PM, “After all, we are all children of God, are we not.”
“We are not children of God,” thundered Paisley, “We are children of Wrath.”
As Ruth recounts, somewhat reluctantly, Paisley was a preacher of great eloquence and (narrow) learning. On this occasion, however, there was general bafflement.
“Ephesians 2:3,” he added — well, somewhat wrathfully.
For Paisley was also witty, shrewd, eloquent, intellectually capable, and even good company. He liked the company of journalists, or at any rate was shrewd enough to pretend to, and he was adept at dealing with them and, when it was convenient, at either charming them or throwing them off balance.
One of my then-colleagues at Radio Telefis Eireann, Ireland’s state broadcaster, prepped me for my first interview with him. He had stepped into Paisley’s path as the Reverend was leaving the hall where he had given a speech.
“Dr. Paisley,” he began, “Just now in the hall, you said . . .”
“I said nothing of the sort, young man,” responded Paisley sharply. “Let me smell your breath.” That was on air, of course; such moments always are.
Another colleague, Sean, recounted how Paisley had interrupted his first question, also on air, with the inquiry. “Today is a Roman Catholic holiday of obligation, young man, and you are a Catholic. Have you attended Mass yet?”
Paisley knew both that Sean’s mother was likely to be listening and that it was highly probable that Sean had not been to Mass that day. He was correct on both counts. Sean lost control of the interview and never regained it.
Most of the obituaries tell the moralistic tale of a man of anger and bigotry who, late in life, got religion (well, a different sort of religion at any rate), embraced peace, and walked arm in arm through the peace process into the corridors of power with old enemies such as the IRA’s Martin McGuinness. You can believe that if you wish, but as Ruth demonstrates, it’s self-serving nonsense on the part of both men.
By the time that Northern Ireland was falling into the peace of exhaustion, Paisley had established himself as the leader of the unionist community by the simple expedient of destroying all his rivals, most of them better men than he, from Terence O’Neill through Brian Faulkner to David Trimble. He then did a deal with the Provisional IRA not because everyone had repented — Adams and McGuinness are steadfastly impenitent still — but in order that both sides could share out the spoils of office. I preferred the old bigoted orator who at least genuinely believed that he was defending the Protestant people of Ulster from murder and rapine.
It should be said, moreover, that with all his faults Paisley neither murdered anyone nor gave orders to murder. That Rubicon he never crossed, and saying so is not faint praise in the Ulster of the Troubles. The worst we suspect he did was to conspire to blow up an electric pylon in order to make the ruling and respectable Ulster prime minister look weak and, as the Marxists say, to sharpen the contradictions. Whoever arranged it, the conspiracy succeeded. Soon Ulster prime ministers were falling like ninepins — and 40 years later Paisley got their job. But so sharp were the contradictions that he had to share it with the IRA.
If McGuinness and Adams were less his friends than co-conspirators, Paisley was capable of making and restoring real friendships across sectarian barriers. He did so with one of Northern Ireland’s most decent politicians of the Left: the late Gerry Fitt of West Belfast. Their reconciliation after years of frostiness occurred on a flight from Belfast to Heathrow which saw them placed in aisle seats on the same row. They nodded formally, opened their newspapers, and gasped. It had a front-page scoop that Bernadette Devlin, the Irish republican firebrand, was having a baby. Not a great scandal today, but shocking in the Northern Ireland of those times. Neither Paisley nor Fitt had any reason to like Ms. Devlin. They spent the entire flight, followed by a taxi ride to the House of Commons, competing in damning her as seven different kinds of a Jezebel. No, eight! No, nine!
The press was waiting for them at the Commons.
For once his life the torrentially eloquent Fitt was at a loss for words. Needing time to think, he told the reporters that he would return when he had made an urgent telephone call and headed for the Commons entrance. As he reached the door, he heard Paisley’s booming voice echo across the yard: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
I suppose that Paisley will have to spend a fair tranche of eternity in Purgatory for his sins. As we have established, however, he would say exactly the same about me.