Saturday, 13 September 2014

Ian Paisley: salute a man who found a voice for reason

It’s difficult to work up much of a sense of bereavement over the death of a politician who, during their lives, voiced views that we find toxic.

For my part, I felt no desire to celebrate Maggie Thatcher’s departure – I reserved that for her fall from her office, after which it was a matter of complete indifference to me whether or not she still lived, since she no longer exerted any direct influence over things I held dear. That baleful influence persists, for instance in the 2008 crash caused by the deregulation of banking presided over by Ronald Reagan with her enthusiastic support, but it’s exercised by others who deserve our opposition today. When she died, the matter seemed to me just a footnote in the news.

But I feel different about the death of Ian Paisley yesterday. While I have no sympathy with Ulster Unionism, I can appreciate the stature of the man. He was a far greater figure than Thatcher could ever be.

Ian Paisley in his prime: the megaphone voice of Protestant Unionism
Thatcher was a politician without compassion. She ruthlessly destroyed whole communities in pursuit of beliefs she held with utterly dogmatic, unshakeable certainty. She was incapable of giving any consideration to the possibility that she might be wrong on any issue. It strikes me as particularly powerful wisdom on the part of Tim Minchin to point out that while it’s true, as the popular expression has it, that opinions are like arseholes in that everyone has one, opinions differ from arseholes in requiring to be regularly and closely scrutinised.

It always struck me about Thatcher that she would never have been open to the idea that an opinion of hers deserved scrutiny. She would probably have denied that anything she believed was tenuous enough to be called an opinion rather than a fact. But then I doubt she could have been prevailed upon to admit she even had an arsehole: she took herself far too seriously to allow anything so low.

It was that utter humourlessness, particularly with regard to herself, that was her defining characteristic. Her determination to be taken seriously meant she couldn’t admit that any view contrary to her own might have merit; that made her rigid and intolerant. It was those qualities that led to her ultimate fall. Having pummelled her way into gaining acceptance of such policies as the poll tax, she made herself unelectable, the deadliest of sins within the Tory Party. After having worshipped her for more than a decade, it unceremoniously knifed her.

Now Paisley seemed to be a politician cut from exactly the same block. The phrase most associated with him, a continuation of Edward Carson’s “no surrender” that did such damage to Ulster for decades, was his notorious “never, never, never.” It echoed Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” (Tina as we came to know it, though not uniformly with affection).

There is always an alternative. Paisley unlike Thatcher saw it. On 12 July 2006, eight years after the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement, Paisley said of Sinn Fein that they “are not fit to be in partnership with decent people. They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland and it will be over our dead bodies if they ever get there.”

And yet on 8 May 2007, a mere ten months later, he became First Minister of Northern Ireland, with as his deputy Martin McGuinness, who is not only from Sinn Fein but a known former IRA commander. Paisley said “today at long last we are starting upon the road — I emphasise starting — which I believe will take us to lasting peace in our province.”

Now it takes real courage to make that kind of a turn in politics, or in anything else. To do it for the sake of peace in a riven community shows real greatness.

Thatcher famously – or infamously – said “the lady’s not for turning.” Paisley turned on a question central to his whole political being. And proved himself far the finer statesman by doing so.

Rest in peace, Ian Paisley. My disagreement remains as strong as ever. But it comes with a substantial dose of admiration too.

Postscript. I was once told a story about Paisley whose truth I’ve never been able to establish, and indeed have never investigated: I’d hate to discover it was an invention.

Bernadette Devlin was for a while an MP at Westminster, and the sworn enemy of everything Paisley stood for. She once told him that unionism was unfair. He admitted that she was right but pointed out that he’d “rather be British than be fair.” That at least has the merit of being honest, especially as many Brits like to believe that to be British is to be essentially fair – or at least to believe in fair play, which may or may not be the same thing.

Bernadette Devlin: MP at 22
Firebrand nationalist and nemesis of Paisley
The story I was told was that after a late night sitting of the House of Commons, Paisley was waiting for a taxi in the queue outside the Palace of Westminster. A taxi drew up, but he stood back to let the next MP have it.

“But it’s your cab,” the other replied.

“I’m waiting for Bernadette,” he told him.

Bernadette was a young woman, it was late and London is a big and sometimes dangerous place. She might be a sworn adversary, but Paisley saw it as his duty to see her safely home.

A BBC journalist told an anecdote last night which rather suggested that this might be true.

He found himself, by coincidence, sitting next to Paisley on a plane to London. They chatted all the way over, but Paisley spoke so softly that the correspondent had difficulty hearing him over the engine noise. As they arrived in London, they were besieged by reporters. Paisley switched on his trademark megaphone voice and used it to proclaim some inflammatory and unbending statement or another.

And then turned to his travelling companion and winked.

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