God's Anointed One

Anthony McIntyre 

I now believe that his only consideration was to get to the top of the heap and that he used religion and politics as a route to power. He has become and maybe always was the consummate post-modern politician - Clifford Smyth.
Ian Paisley is one of the most malign people to have enjoyed an extended run on the Northern Ireland political stage. Only someone totally consumed by power lust would want to stay leader of a political party for so long. Had Agatha Christie wrote the script for his performance, Mouth Trap might have been the title she chose for it. A belligerent bigot throughout his life his raucous voice bellowed abuse at everyone who sleighted him or who were considered impediments along the route to fulfilling his ambitions. Even those who did nothing untoward to him were viciously lashed by his rasping cow’s tongue if he found it somehow advantageous. And the advantage invariably had to be his own not society’s. At the hub of everything poisonous he has been a source of rich pickings for anyone inclined to look over his career. One observer long familiar with the Paisley dynasty is the journalist Ed Moloney. In the public mind the former northern editor of the Dublin based Sunday Tribune is perhaps better known for his deftness at probing deep into the clandestine world of the Provisionals. With an unsurpassed work on the role of Gerry Adams at the head of the Provisional IRA, he generated widespread interest at home and abroad thus enhancing his already redoubtable journalistic reputation as an authority on the Provisional movement. Two decades before his Adams foray, however, Moloney had co-authored with Andy Pollak what was then most authoritative study to date on the career of Ian Paisley. This secured him poll position when he set out on his quest to replicate his Adams success in his updated treatment of the former DUP leader, Paisley: From Demagogue to Democrat? Just as Moloney traced the odyssey of the Provisionals from being die hard killers of British police officers to die hard backers of British police officers he has efficiently sketched the broadening of the DUP from a Billy and the bigots mindset to one of Peter and the pragmatists. This time Moloney went on a solo run in his updating of the Paisley biography. Andy Pollak may have felt too embedded in the peace process to risk probing its less salubrious side. Whatever the reason the outcome has been that the now New York domiciled writer has the unique distinction of having crafted biographies of the foremost two totalitarian leaders in Northern Irish politics. No mean feat given the uncompromising unwillingness of either man to collaborate with anyone unwilling to pen a slavish hagiography to them. Published almost a year now the book remains a talking point in the intellectual and cultural milieu of the North. Not being from the school of lavishly drooling praise on politicians Moloney stays true to what a journalist should be. He knows instinctively that authorised accounts are as a rule worthless for anything other than promoting their subject. Dean Godson’s Trimble biography is a notable exception. But then Trimble had a courageous streak not available to Paisley. Moloney knows that if you want a more accurate insight into the psyche of a leader it is essential to approach his internal critics, listen to what they say and then search for means to substantiate it. This approach worked in the Adams construction and has proved reliable again. The book about Paisley is unlikely however to poke the hornet’s nest to the same extent that the Adams centred A Secret History of the IRA did. There is simply no record of Paisley having denied membership of the DUP. Adams by contrast has been denying IRA membership for decades. Even as late as this evening he was at it again on BBC Hearts & Minds. Thoroughly rubbishing such denials and reducing them to farce has a drawing power all of its own. Much as Godson did with the Trimble biography Moloney tells the story of the peace process through the political character of Paisley. Such accounts of the process are the best way of overcoming the tedium associated with it. Picking up a book dealing exclusively with the peace process would be much like reading through a telephone directory, the brain dead alone having the intellectual stamina to get to the end. In this work Moloney treats his reader to an absorbing account of the life of Ian Kyle Paisley. As interesting as the political trajectory is the religious dimension of Paisley’s life. Not that spirituality figured to any great extent. Religion was more about the happenings in this world. As with the Methodist John Wesley’s use of an ‘appalling system of religious terrorism’, frightening the wits out of people through the devil figured more prominently in Paisley’s Weltanschung than the love of god. And with the omnipresent hate contorted faces of disciples Willie McCrea, Ivan Foster and William Beattie accompanying him for much of his career Hades readily sprang to mind in a way that Heaven most certainly did not. Paisley from his early days in the world of the church promoted division at every strategic opportunity to give him advantage over his rivals. It was a device he would employ throughout his long political life causing Moloney to conclude that Paisley used both religious and political intransigence as a means to further his own career. Moloney in the opening pages asks the most wounding question of all: ‘was Ian Paisley possibly the only member of his flock who never really or fully believed his own gospel?’ Moloney’s timing was fortuitous as well as fortunate. The publication of the book coincided with the handover of power within the DUP and the stepping down by Paisley from the long coveted First Minister’s position. And it is in describing the strategies used by Paisley’s critics to undermine him that Moloney excels. I put the book down thinking Paisley’s last words as party leader must have been ‘et tu Brutus.’ Peter Robinson was always Cassius in this one and Paisley’s curiosity would have led his nose to sniffing out who else was along with Peter as the knife was thrust into his ambitious heart. From the religious flank Ivan Foster was the man who shielded the blade within a bible. One time leader of the ‘turd force’, Foster first lacerated then rubbed salt into the wounds of the old brute by explaining to Paisley that it was he himself who taught the commander in chief of the turds the art of fighting dirty and rooting out heresy within the ranks. After years of slashing at the unclean thing the big beast proved not too biblically sound in the area of theological hygiene. What bitter irony it is to fall on one’s own sword. Moloney with typical bluntness does not pull his punches in describing Ulster Resistance as the paramilitary wing of the DUP. This sets the scene for a conclusion that both the DUP and Sinn Fein were two heads of the same coin and that one’s need for the other was always reciprocal. ‘The truth about Paisley and the Provos is that they were yoked together from the very beginning.’ This adds a new layer of understanding to the conceptual means by which we come to understand the Provisionals as being the product of events rather than the continuation of a long unbroken tradition. And it was the absence of any substantive traditional influences on the Provisionals that made them susceptible to the lure of reformism and by extension an internal solution, both of which have come to characterise their defeat. Despite the similarities between the two parties, best distilled down to the personality cults surrounding totalitarian leaders, there was much more of a challenging grassroots at play inside the DUP than there was within Sinn Fein. The type of barracking described by Moloney at DUP meetings in Lurgan was unimaginable within Sinn Fein where no matter what the U-turns, gatherings attended by the brass were always leadership adulation fests. Although this is a book about Paisley the reader can only hope that at some point Moloney may turn his attention to Peter Robinson, worthy of a book own his own. Arguably were it not for Robinson keeping a close eye on the talks with Downing Street and refusing to allow his then leader to conclude any deal without his own imprimatur, Unionism’s current position of dominance might not have been so strong. Ian Paisley junior triumphantly referred to it last week in Hearts & Minds in terms of what the party could get away with because Sinn Fein in his view were such a pushover in government. Robinson proved the foil to Paisley’s susceptibility to Tony Blair’s flattery at crucial points in negotiations. Robinson rather than Paisley was the formidable bulwark that Sinn Fein could not budge. The Catholic party had no one in its ranks capable of matching Robinson’s strategic, devious, calculating, ruthless and formidable mind. Robinson’s role in building the Paisley machine is well documented in this book. Moloney leaves no doubts that Robinson was the power behind the Paisley throne. From the moment Robinson saved Paisley’s bacon after the latter’s disastrous handling of the 1977 loyalist strike this astute strategist and party organisational maven’s grip on strategic power in the party was assured. Robinson was entrenched inside the greasy power pole and would never become dislodged, even riding out his Peter Punt moment in 1986 to make a resounding comeback. Strategising and outmanoeuvring the UUP to Paisley’s delight, but simultaneously coming up on the big bigot’s inside track, Peter Robinson was perfectly placed to pick up the baton Paisley’s son, Ian Junior, felt was his own courtesy of hereditary succession. When Paisley was left dangerously exposed by being unable to protect his son against a cacophony of calls for his venal head, everyone knew the game was up. It was finishing Paisley senior off by proxy. The longest running ‘pa and his boy’ soap since Steptoe and Son had come to an end. Evidently, Paisley was trapped on the horns of a dilemma over Robinson. Every other deputy whose head seemed to be growing bigger than Paisley’s own quickly found it guillotined. That Paisley kept Robinson signalled the bind he was in. There was no way that Paisley would ever have become leader of a British Northern Ireland without standing on the shoulders of Robinson. But the very act that hoisted him to such lofty heights was also the one that ensured his feet were no longer on the ground. Robinson first hoisted him then heisted him, stealing the crown that despite its largeness could fit more heads than one. Although not before Paisley had worn it for a year. The men who pulled him into power sharing ultimately pushed him out of his share of it. He was seduced by Robinson’s logic that the best place to screw Sinn Fein was in bed beside them. Once he succumbed to the lure of being a chuckle brother, grinning at the jokes of a man he had long called a mass murderer, Robinson left him in no doubt that the DUP’s greatest asset had become its greatest liability. To reach the zenith Paisley had to abandon a lot of what he proclaimed to stand for over the decades of strife making. He began his serious coup d’etat career as a serial saboteur of Northern Irish political leaders with the removal of Terence O’Neill as Prime minister. He cursed everyone who even smiled benignly at a nationalist. An implacable opponent of power sharing he did not even want the SDLP in office yet ended up sitting in it alongside and chuckling with Sinn Fein. At the close of play he faced the same vitriol he had long cooked up by the bucketful and spat at numerous others. The slayer of all Lundys now faced accusations that he had become the greatest Lundy of all. Yet for all of that he came to lead a Northern Ireland no less British than it was with O’Neill or Faulkner at the helm. He witnessed the defeat of the Provisional IRA, Sinn Fein’s acceptance of an exclusive six county veto over the future of the country – the partition principle, Sinn Fein’s support for a British police service and its calls for criminalising republican critics. He must have laughed mirthfully at Sinn Fein’s demands for republicans like Harry Fitzsimons and Liam Rainey to be put in jail and for him to be put in government. Paisley did not come to terms with republicanism, the disintegration of which he must have viewed with quite some glee. He came to terms, albeit grudgingly and reluctantly, with the civil rights agenda. Paisley certainly does not emerge from this book as someone with a mastery of detail. One of the uncomfortable challenges that flows from its pages for Moloney’s critics is that the biographer masters detail much better than his subject. Packed with facts, vignettes, records of meetings, minutes and confidences, none of it dull or insipid, there is little scope for the analysis to be seriously refuted. Moloney’s account of the back channel negotiations between Sinn Fein and the DUP is fascinating and is a foil to the DUP assertions that no such meetings took place. The St Andrews Agreement which finally formalised the Paisley victory over Sinn Fein hardly amounted to a significant advance of what was agreed more than three decades earlier at Sunningdale. Moloney forces his reader to question the reason that the violence and hate mongering lasted so long when it produced so little tangible improvement. This is a book that will continue to be read long after its first publication. Students trying to find a quick access point to understanding the Northern Ireland conflict will be well advised by their tutors to have it sitting on their shelves next to A Secret History of the IRA by the same author. Ed Moloney, Paisley: From Demagogue to Democrat? 2008. Poolbeg Press: Dublin


  1. Any info on paisley involvement in the moira lyons story of the '50s/early 60s?

  2. Yes, the Lyons affair is dealt with. In terms of those big issues they are all pretty much covered in the book

  3. Thats is a brilliant review of Maloney's book. The amount of research that went in to that book was amazing, it was a great read.