Did Ian Paisley always believe in civil rights?

PACEMAKER BELFAST. Ian Paisley before Local Council Elections where he announced his Smash Sinn Fein Campaign. 18/04/85.'685/85/bwc
PACEMAKER BELFAST. Ian Paisley before Local Council Elections where he announced his Smash Sinn Fein Campaign. 18/04/85.'685/85/bwc

Ian Paisley’s recent TV appearances have been graceless, unpleasant, bitter and unseemly (GUBU), to paraphrase Conor Cruise O’Brien on Charles Haughey. They’ve also been evasive and embarrassing. Embarrassing, that is, if you’re a DUP supporter.

Eamonn Mallie’s profiles of the ‘Big Man’ prove the truth of the old adage, ‘There’s no fool like an old fool’. They illustrate why his party was so anxious to ditch him after he had outlived his usefulness. He was a lightning conductor until people got used to the DUP in government with Sinn Féin but, chuckling too enthusiastically with Martin McGuinness, he quickly became an embarrassment. Of course that’s not how he saw it. He loved being top man at last and thinks it was a shame that he was forced to quit so early in his career!

People have been forgiving of Paisley in recent years. His change from mob-pleasing demagogue to harmless old Chuckle Brother won him a sympathetic audience.

Does he deserve such kindness?

‘No,’ ought to be the answer. Even though I accept the idea of redemption, isn’t it supposed to require some humility? Or, is it sufficient to stick to playing the blame game? Paisley denies responsibility for everything that went wrong and, full of bitterness, he lashes out at others. We’re all capable of turning our lives around but don’t we need to be honest? Wasn’t it hypocritical of Ian Paisley to demand that the IRA “wear sackcloth and ashes” while being unwilling to admit any of his own faults?

Shockingly, he now tells us that the civil rights movement was right all along, yet he can’t bring himself to apologise for his strident opposition to it. Instead, his disingenuous excuse is that he couldn’t admit the truth because the movement’s leaders supported a united Ireland. Did that justify bad-mouthing every unionist leader who attempted reform? If the denial of civil rights was so wrong why did he make it virtually impossible to put things right? Didn’t he help to create the poisoned atmosphere which propelled us towards violence?

Actually, it’s more serious than that. It’s not just the supreme egotist’s place in history that’s at stake here. In a sense that doesn’t matter.

A more significant question is what those in the DUP really think of their former leader’s admissions. After all, the party was created by Paisley in his own image.

Core supporters believed the demands of the civil rights movement were unjustified. Weren’t they also entitled to believe that their own leader was sincere in his opposition to the movement? If Ian Paisley actually believed in civil rights then didn’t he have a moral obligation to explain that to his supporters? As it stands, isn’t Mr Paisley guilty of a gross betrayal of his own people?

Peter Robinson and Gregory Campbell have decided on the damage limitation strategy of dismissing the controversy as, “failures of recollection” by their 87-year-old former leader. That won’t do. While the elderly Paisley has lost some of his sharp wit it’s obvious that his memory is perfectly clear and his comments were carefully considered.

Doesn’t the DUP leadership owe the party and the rest of us a more convincing explanation? Did Lord Bannside always believe in civil rights or has he changed his mind?