Friday, 7 March 2008

Adams praise of Paisley is 'sickening'

Another day, another piece by Simon Jenkins to analyse. On this occasion Jenkins finds himself exercised by a valedictory article about Ian Paisley on the Guardian’s own Comment is Free blog. The author of this ‘eulogy’ as Jenkins characterises it, is none other than Gerry Adams and in the headline the Sinn Fein president describes Paisley as “a fascinating and gracious man”. Jenkins raises some excellent points in his article and is sickened by this praise of a man so responsible for Northern Ireland’s troubled past, by another who is in fact still more culpable. On this occasion though, I cannot heap unqualified praise on his article, there are a number of points I would take issue with.

Jenkins opens strongly, accurately identifying something akin to nostalgia in Adams’ recollection that Paisley played a formative role in his political development.

“As for Paisley's role in inciting violence and tension, it "whetted my political appetite and radicalised a generation of young people like myself". It was almost a thank you. It was sickening.”


Sickening indeed. Following Northern Ireland’s politics there’s a lot to find sickening and much of it come from these two men and their parties. Jenkins evokes Paisley’s religious fanaticism and bigotry, lucidly capturing some of his most famous anti-Catholic utterances. It is careless however to ascribe Paisley’s existence to ‘post-colonial partition’ which Britain tends to ‘do badly’. There is no consensus on ascribing to British rule of Ireland the term ‘colony’ and it is an unhelpfully counter-factual assertion to claim Paisley’s extremism derived from partition. The colonial model does not fit Ireland snugly; the truth was more complicated and there is sufficient evidence to argue that the seeds of partition were sown long before 1921 and made it an inevitability, not merely an arbitrary and unnatural decision of the British government.

Neither is it historical to claim that unionist politicians acknowledged reform was needed only in the 1970s and 1980s. O’Neill and Brookeborough had already made allusions to the requirement to reform and indeed throughout the existence of the Northern Ireland state, there were those within unionism who argued that nationalism would best be countered by making the state more inclusive. The simple statement that Catholics were ‘persecuted’ is in itself contentious. When Jenkins casually puts David Trimble in a lineage of progressive unionist leaders who opposed ‘persecution’ he is being disingenuous. Even if we accept the term to describe some elements of discrimination which did occur within the Northern Irish state, by the time Trimble was working to reach an agreement with nationalism, nothing analogous to this term meaningfully existed.

There follows another lazy piece of historical generalisation in the next paragraph in which Jenkins describes Catholics being ‘driven into the arms of IRA gangs’. Firstly only a small number of Catholics joined the IRA and these people were certainly not ‘driven into the arms’ of anyone. Jenkins is trying to move his narrative on in a relatively short article, but such rash assertions are not helpful.

The substance of the article is however retrieved and Jenkins summation of Paisley’s relationship with loyalist terrorism is telling:

“While Paisley claimed to reject violence, his bloodthirsty language laundered the brutality of the loyalist paramilitaries.”


Paisley’s incendiary tirades would consistently foment violence and destruction from which he would then quickly dissociate himself. A pattern which was to recur time and time again.

Jenkins has now found his stride:

“Between them Adams and Paisley made Northern Ireland ungovernable and brought death, destruction and untold misery to tens of thousands of their countrymen. They offered no leadership towards compromise and undermined those who did by pandering to the baser instincts and fears of their supporters. They were the Taliban of Europe, operating in their equivalent of Tora Bora, the fields of South Armagh and the Orange Order halls of the Shankill. The death toll rose to 3,500.
Adams and his collaborator, Martin McGuinness, destroyed Hume's SDLP, and Paisley's histrionic fundamentalism destroyed Trimble's unionism.”
“These men eventually eliminated moderate leaders so they could claim moderation for themselves. They smashed power-sharing so they could share power between themselves. They now pretend that change could not have been faster because the people would not let them. The climate of public opinion in the province was not ready.
That is a lie. These men were the climate, and it was one of systematic bigotry and violence”


Jenkins beautifully articulates the anger of moderate and thoughtful people as they survey the sectarian carve-up which now pertains. His analysis of Tony Blair’s contribution to the peace process is penetrating:

“Tony Blair cleared from the battlefield the moderate clutter of Hume and Trimble so that Adams and Paisley could see the whites of each other's eyes”

“Blair's prisoner release turned more terrorists and gangsters on to the streets of Britain than anything in modern history. By pandering to extremism it destroyed the electoral bases of both Hume and Trimble. It rewarded Adams for his negotiating cunning and Paisley for his intransigence. The spoils of violence were recouped by the men who had opposed peace.”


Simon Jenkins article is extremely good on recent history, but in providing a broad-brush gloss on more distant events he perhaps undermines some of the arguments which he then articulates which startling accuracy.

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