Monday, 19 May 2008

Paisley - From Demagogue to Democrat?

In the introduction to ‘Paisley: From Demagogue to Democrat?’ Ed Moloney asks ‘was Paisley the only member of his flock who never really or truly believed his own gospel?’ and the book certainly points to a cynicism within the man which dictates that the only principles which he does not expect to be unbending are his own. This biography of the outgoing DUP leader plots the machinations whereby, fomenting division and fuelling hatred, he opportunistically carved out both his own church and political party from the main bodies of Presbyterianism and unionism respectively.

Moloney’s updated book is particularly lucid charting the symbiotic, nurturing relationship between Paisleyism and republicanism throughout the troubles and into the present dispensation. The IRA’s campaign provided the climate of fear in which Paisley’s politics could thrive and conversely his brand of sectarianism and recalcitrance contributed to an atmosphere where violence could flourish. Often the DUP leader would flirt deniably with loyalist variants of such violence, before drawing back when the physical threat of these organisations had served its purpose. Now Paisley’s party and republicans sustain each other in much more overt fashion, in turns evoking the bogey man of the other for electoral advantage, and presiding over an agreed carve-up of Northern Ireland into their respective fiefdoms.

Whilst Paisley’s political career is well documented, the early sections of this book, drawn from the previous edition co-authored with Andy Pollak, document his family roots and those of his church, in the extreme fringe of rural evangelical Christianity. This was a world in which dancing, attending the cinema and wearing bobbed hair were often considered sinful and where fierce theological disputes would flare up with preternatural intensity. Ian Paisley travelled all over Northern Ireland, seeking out dispute and confrontation, single-mindedly capitalising on whatever dissent he could find in order to build his own Free Presbyterian church. Religion enabled him to establish a following, enflamed by his hyperbolic and hate-filled rhetoric, which would provide the bedrock for his political movement.

Paisley’s on-off movement toward politics was inseparable from his anti-Catholicism. Only weeks after he was ordained, the new minister became linked with the extremist National Union of Protestants. His various promises to remain out of the political sphere would be pragmatically set aside on numerous occasions, until he was eventually involved in politics on a full-time basis and every vestige of an undertaking he had made to his church was abandoned. Moloney describes this transition in meticulous detail from rabble rousing crowds on the Shankill Road into attacks on Catholic property, through to increasingly rabid attacks on the Official Unionist establishment, until eventually Paisley stood against Terence O’Neill in the Bannside constituency, thus formalising his involvement in politics.

Paisley’s incessant cries of treachery which contributed to the departures of O’Neill, Chichester-Clark, Faulkner, Trimble and others have been documented thoroughly before. Much of the detail of his political ascent will be familiar material for readers who have an interest in the period. Moloney does however recount some fascinating background from the formative history of the DUP of which I was unaware. That Paisley toyed with notions of Ulster independence will shock no-one who has identified the nationalist bent to his politics, but that he briefly occupied an integrationist position or that he spoke positively about the prospect of a united Ireland (albeit one with a constitution altered to disestablish Catholicism and afford protection for northern Protestants) may be initially surprising. His fellow traveller in setting up the party, Desmond Boal, was eventually to plump for Irish federalism as his preferred solution to ordering statehood on the island. Of course these departures from anything definable as unionism are not inconsistent with the Paisley’s credo. His unionism springs merely from a strategic consideration of how best to lead his Ulster Protestant ‘Volk’ rather than any real commitment to the Union or to the United Kingdom and its values and institutions.

Moloney’s book delivers its most pertinent analysis examining the DUP’s rise to become unionism’s largest party through recalcitrant opposition to peace initiatives and the subsequent about-face which Paisley performed to assume power when this process had been completed. Although DUP sources are not named, impressive research has been conducted into the dynamics within the party as its leadership manipulated it towards power-sharing with Sinn Féin. Much space is devoted to the relationship between Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, which vacillated between loathing and mutual reliance.

Apart from Paisley himself, the most scathing criticism in this book is reserved for Tony Blair. Moloney sees Blair’s constant concessions to Sinn Féin following the Belfast Agreement as a pivotal reason for the eventual triumph of the extremes. The mutual relationship between Paisley and republicans could clearly be observed during this period as both prospered together as a result of Blair’s mismanagement of the process. As it became clearer that a deal between the DUP and Sinn Féin was possible a conscious decision was made to jettison the two more moderate parties. The current carve-up at Stormont is a direct result of decisions made during this period.

‘From Demagogue to Democrat?’ is a meticulously researched account of Ian Paisley’s malign influence on Northern Ireland. Moloney allows the facts and analysis to speak for themselves, fashioning a comprehensive and academic account, without really examining the emotional pull which Paisley’s charisma manages to exert on his followers. The demagogue’s motives are examined and Moloney comes to some scathing conclusions. Whether Paisley has entered power with Sinn Féin to scorn a unionist establishment which has in the past spurned him, or whether taking the First Minister’s position is merely the culmination of a lifetime’s cynical manipulation, he has crowned a career epitomising hatred and bigotry, by exemplifying unprincipled hypocrisy even more convincingly.

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