Converting Paisley the Irish demagogue


'Ian Paisley', by Reuben BrandNorthern Ireland has celebrated a year of normal political life.

At least St Paul got hit by a bolt of lightning and, and if we are to believe Carvaggio, got knocked off his horse. He even had a shout from a passing satellite to help him make up his mind. Three pretty strong hints that he should mend his ways.

Two thousand years later, what did Ian Paisley get to persuade him to change from a brand-name for bigotry into a reasonable human being?

In a recent biography of the big man, Paisley. From Demagogue to Democrat, journalist Ed Moloney examines a number of possible reasons for his conversion so late in life.

In 2004 Paisley had a serious illness requiring a hospital stay of more than a week. According to his son Kyle he was at death's door. But the man himself would have none of it. On emerging, he raged against those who suggested he was human.

'I hope to take a few thousand pounds off some newspapers who lied about me. And I would say it is just because I happen to be a Protestant and journalists happen to be Romanists that they think they can take it out on me.' The spots had not changed.

It was of course necessary to insist he was in good health if he was to take his place at the head of a delegation at Leeds Castle later in the year to meet with Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern and White House representative Mitchell Reiss to discuss the future of Northern Ireland.

At this time, according to Moloney, Paisley had in mind that he wanted the post of First Minister and it is possible that his recent illness made him more amenable to compromise.

It was another two years before the Leeds discussions bore fruit, this time at St Andrews. In the interim, there was the robbery of £26.5 million from the Northern Bank and the killing of Robert McCartney, the first almost certainly with the approval of the top echelons of the IRA, the second a piece of thuggery that involved the organisation in covering up murder by some of its members.

These were real life updates on Gerry Adams' famous comment to his followers in an earlier ceasefire: 'We have not gone away, you know.'

They allowed Paisley — indeed demanded of him — a suspension of contact with Sinn Fein.

Moloney believes Paisley never relished confrontation. He could dish out vitriol from the pulpit or the hustings, but face-to-face he was a poor negotiator. Certainly he was no match for Tony Blair, whose main weapon was flattery and charm.

But Peter Robinson, Paisley's number two, was made of sterner stuff — 'invariably unsmiling and grimly oozing acrimony ... Paisley with balls'. He kept a close eye on the negotiations, ensuring that his boss did not give everything away 'just for a riband to stick in his coat'.

And there were ribands. At the time of St Andrews, Paisley was a Privy Councillor and his wife Eileen was in the House of Lords. She appears to have had a major influence in persuading him that he should make peace.

In his subsequent statements, he makes reference to children and grandchildren and his responsibility to future generations, sentiments that may have been inspired by her. They were certainly not used when he was doing his Grand Old Duke of York impersonations in his earlier career.

In the end, the overarching impression is of a very human man, unable or unwilling to see the inconsistency of the main thread of his life, brought in from the cold by the blandishments of power, privilege and respectability. Chief Minister, Privy Council, House of Lords: how much more respectable can a poor preacher get?

He and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness were supposed to be equals, but he obviously saw himself as a Prime Minister and to the credit of the Sinn Fein man, he went along with it. To be flattered by Blair, Bush, Clinton and Ahern is one thing, but to be flattered by a man seen as the IRA in a suit! Now that's conversion.

That he has lost the moderatorship of the church he himself founded and has been persuaded to resign as First Minister, almost certainly against his will, adds an element of nemesis — sad or well deserved, take your pick — to his fading years.

All that being said, all the inconsistency, all the fascist-style gatherings of his youth, all the marching up to the top of the hill, all the ranting in Westminster and Strasbourg, we are left with one incontrovertible fact: for 12 months, Northern Ireland has functioned like a normal state.

And just as Ian Paisley can be blamed for some of the deaths and maimings of a war that lasted 40 years, he can also claim some credit for the one year of peace and prosperity.

There is one final thought. If Paisley was indeed at death's door in 2004, isn't it just possible that he had some inkling that there might be an ultimate reckoning for a lifetime of hatred and incitement to violence? A Pauline conversion, perhaps.

The European Institute of Protestant Studies (

Frank O'SheaFrank O'Shea is a retired teacher. His book Keeping Faith: 40 Years of Marist College Canberra was published in March.


Topic tags: Frank O'Shea, Ian Paisley, Irish politics, Paisley. From Demagogue to Democrat, Ed Moloney



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Existing comments

Nowhere do I see you mention that the "conversion" could have been due to his delving into lobbying for rather rapacious developers in Ireland. He and his son - who also made money by lobbying for developers - were about to be found out (as they were!). So much for ther Pauline conversion!
Nathalie Shepherd | 27 May 2008

The changed political situation in northern Ireland is mainly an economic one. Now that the whole of Ireland is enjoying prosperity, the old divisions stand in the way of the enjoyment of this prosperity by all sections of society.
john ozanne | 27 May 2008

My Irish (Columban) colleagues here in Lima have always accepted the fact that as a local politician, Paisley always (and strangely enough) when dealing with his own catholic constituents treated them decently and fairly, whenever they approached him with a problem at that level.
leo donnelly e. | 24 June 2008


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