'It remains a challenge to find any redeeming features about Big Ian'

As someone who grew up under the dark shadow cast by Ian Paisley, I don't quite see him through the rose tinted spectacles that sit perched on the noses of other writers and commentators. History, it is said, is always written from the perspective of the present, but with a false history, how can we have an accurate understanding of the present? Is everything about us to be a fiction?

From yesterday's Sunday Tribune:

'It remains a challenge to find any redeeming features about Big Ian'

FOR all his identification with Old Testament biblical lore, Ian Paisley never donned Joseph's coat of many colours, preferring a garment of only one hue -- bright orange. This colossus of sectarian triumphalism spans the breadth of my political memory.

My first experience of him was as a young child in south Belfast. In 1966 he led a march through the nationalist Markets area which resulted in a riot. The following day in primary school there was a Paisley buzz. Our teacher, Mr Marcus, quizzed my classmates about the event. Everybody was eager to describe the size of the stone their father or older brothers threw at the invading ogre and his mob of madding clerics.

Later, I was to sense my mother's trepidation when Paisley almost beat the then Northern Ireland prime minister in an election to the old Stormont parliament. Her relief at his narrow defeat was shortlived. The event almost certainly heralded the beginning of a long successful career of overthrowing unionist leaders, which eventually resulted in his seizing of the crown for his own large head. As she was waiting to die last year, my mother expressed deep dissatisfaction that one of the last events she was to witness was the big beast of sectarianism being rewarded by Sinn Fein of all parties. I guess the thought that went through the mind of Danny Morrison also gripped her own:
"Increasingly I think we must need our heads examined...What an advertisement he would be around the world. We would be a laughing stock."

Some years after my first awareness of Ian Paisley, as a young IRA volunteer I ended up serving time in prison, a willing participant in the conflagration which he did so much to fan. While I and others were being falsely labelled criminals by a genuinely criminal British government that had massacred an unarmed civilian population on the streets of Derry, Paisley was a cheerleader for those in the British state who were determined to see Bobby Sands and his protesting comrades in their graves. His vitriol served him well, allowing his Democratic Unionist Party to beat the Ulster Unionists in the 1981 local council elections.

And so it continued right up to his recent demand that those who resisted the British would wear sackcloth and ashes for their "sins". If it was not the pope on the receiving end of his rasping cow's tongue, it was someone else who had offended his self-serving pristine Puritanism. It remains a challenge to find any redeeming features about the man. When he eventually entered a government with Sinn Fein it was as part of a power-splitting, rather than a powersharing, arrangement.

Ultimately, history might be unkind to Ian Paisley, judging him as the man who abandoned all his beliefs for a slice of power, only to fall on the extremist sword he had fashioned to perfection. A more astute assessment might well conclude that, in essence, the old theocrat never really changed. In government, he secured what had long eluded him outside of it -- Sinn Fein's acceptance of second-class citizenship. His perpetual dismissal of Martin McGuinness as 'the deputy' was par for the Paisley course. That the Derry Catholic should prove so deferential to the 'big man' negated a lifetime spent insisting that God made Catholics but the armalite rifle made them equal.

Ian Paisley can step into retirement chuckling at his achievements: partition into perpetuity and the union with Britain as secure as it has ever been. His has been one political odyssey that defies Enoch Powell's dictum "all political careers end in failure".

Anthony McIntyre is an ex-IRA prisoner and writer.


  1. An excellent piece, and one that I've found myself agreeing with to a much greater extent than some of your earlier diatribes. However, a realistic (ish) alternative is needed before the provo efforts can be dismissed outright.

    The best way to counter the current PSF position (which I broadly support) is to construct an alternative that we can buy in to.

    If the sell-out by SF is so grave, then your job is an easy one.

    I watch with interest.

  2. Always good to differentiate between pieces rather than being seamlessly opposed to everything or in favour of them all. The issue of alternatives is non problematical at the level of ideas. The challenge is to find the frame in which the idea can develop. SF for example has no alternative to British rule but has found a frame in which the idea of administering such rule can take hold. I doubt if there is a serious or substantial republican constituency out there which would serve as a frame. Unlike dissident unionist ideas which while not all that developed could nevertheless take root – if, that is, we can generalise from the Dromore by-election.
    That leads onto another point of contention and takes us back to the origins of PSF. Was it a post 1969 phenomenon energised not by the British presence but by the form the presence took? I suspect the latter. The British did not have to withdraw but merely change behaviour in order to pacify the resentment that sustained PSF. The PSF volte face or 'sell out' - as you imply it is viewed by critics - has been absolute in terms of abandoning republicanism. But ultimately how popular was republicanism? It never commanded majority nationalist support. Nationalism alone could secure that. PSF understood that and in order to hegemonise had to derepublicanise. PSF clearly tapped into the northern nationalist ‘common sense’ which is hardly republican. All of which makes it unlikely that any republican alternative will take root.

  3. "His has been one political odyssey that defies Enoch Powell's dictum "all political careers end in failure"."

    Was it really? Considering that he betrayed his principles, was forced to step down by internal wranglings and has left an indelible legacy on his party that has not only cost them votes, but has also opened discussions about a united Ireland?

    It's funny that you mention Powell, as Paisley despised him by all accounts.