Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Ian Paisley: The Preacher Wearies...

Thanks to the mighty Tom Paulin and his 1982 essay for the London Review of Books entitled Paisley’s Progress, I learned that one of the Reverend Ian Paisley’s major sermons - published in his pomp at the helm of the Martyrs Memorial Church on Ravenhill Road, Belfast - made a great symbol out of the unpassable divide wrought by the sea. ‘Nothing separates like the sea’, Paisley preached. ‘What a terrible barrier the sea makes. Separation...’ Such sentiments were part of what led Paulin to read Paisley as one Ulster 'Unionist' determined to release Ulster from its bondage to both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom - while, of course, ensuring that Ulster retained its special and peculiar six-county majesty…
In 1970
Paisley became a Westminster MP for North Antrim. Next month he will be 84 years old. This week he finally gave up on his Westminster seat, and so renounced the need for all those flights across the Irish Sea from Antrim to London and the Mother of Parliaments. But he will still be a figure at the semi-devolved Northern Irish Assembly at Stormont, where, amazingly, he became First Minister, in 2007 leading the DUP, the party he founded, into coalition government with the party he called ‘Sinn Fein/IRA.’ Tony Blair and the Irish taoiseach Ahern stood by and blessed this marriage. Afterward Paisley joked for the TV cameras with Blair, remarking, ‘I wonder why people hate me so much, as I’m such a nice man...’

A few weeks ago I sat watching TV news with an Ulsterman of pension age when
Paisley came on, trying to be charming in his dotage. ‘That’s a bad rascal right there’, muttered my friend, unbidden - an opinion I wouldn’t have predicted from him, and yet was unsurprised by. For such a populist vote-winner, such a ‘nice man’, so many of Paisley's admirers have been furtive and embarrassed, and so many of his critics left to feel surreal and lonely in pointing out what a cheerleader for thuggery he has so often been in the course of his quite inimitable career.