History’s verdict on Paisley won’t be as kind as the tributes

Ian Paisley.
Ian Paisley.

Now we know the outcome in Scotland. This had to be written in advance as I was away at the week-end.

The run up to the vote was tedious and as if that weren’t enough, here at home, we had to endure the wholesale re-writing of history.

Martin McGuinness and others were magnanimous in their tributes to Ian Paisley. That was fair enough. He did lead his party into power sharing when he believed it was the right thing to do. It’s also fair to recognise that he at least had a charismatic side, unlike his mean-spirited lieutenants.

Unfortunately for Lord Bannside his place in history is less secure than last week’s tributes would indicate. “Paisley was an arsonist who joined the fire brigade a couple of years before he died,” wrote Michael White in the Guardian.

Power sharing with cross-border co-operation could have taken root in 1974, after Sunningdale, if it hadn’t been for Paisley’s protests. Over 2,600 people were to die in the quarter century between Sunningdale and the Good Friday Agreement.

We know enough about Paisley to know that he had a monstrous ego. He had to be the ‘main man’. He started his own church, his own political party and his own Orange Order so he could lead all three. His leadership was unchallenged for decades but, eventually and inevitably, when the challenges did come Paisley couldn’t handle them.

Even in declining health he wanted to go on and on. He relinquished leadership with bitterness and a shocking lack of grace.

This evidence makes it difficult, if not impossible, not to conclude that his Stormont Road conversion wasn’t also driven by personal ambition. The party he had sworn to smash were to be his partners because, at last, it was his chance for power. Having destroyed all previous unionist leaders and reached the top of the greasy pole himself, he was willing to pay any price to be First Minister. It was time to re-invent himself as a chuckle brother.

Paisley did have a kind and affable side. In last week’s re-writing of history this, and his readiness to help Catholic constituents were cited as evidence that he was a man of integrity. Are we meant to think that his vulgar, intemperate, rabble-rousing speeches were just his plain speaking style? It simply wasn’t so.

He was willing to misrepresent Catholic theology and to exaggerate allegations to the point of dishonesty if they suited his purpose.

Many stories, some not yet in the public domain, illustrate this.

One such, I heard from a senior manager with the BBC in Belfast. At a public meeting, Ian Paisley lambasted the “republican” BBC. They were, he said, conspiring to destroy the loyal Protestants of Ulster. He named this particular manager as being behind the plot. A couple of days later the BBC man happened to meet Ian and told him how annoyed he was by his speech. “You knew perfectly well that it wasn’t true,” said the BBC man. Paisley smiled and said in a quiet voice, “Listen *****, if I offended you, I’m sorry”.

So what will history’s final verdict be? We’ll have to wait on the scholars for that. In the meantime, it’s clear that any balanced view of Paisley will have to be much less glowing than many of last week’s hero-worshiping tributes.