Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Ian Paisley: an obituary

I’ve just heard the joyous news that Ian Paisley has been taken to hospital after a suspected heart attack, and sincerely hope that it marks the prelude to his imminent and painful death. Politicians are difficult people to like at the best of times, as are clerics, so he’s in a difficult position from the start as far as I’m concerned. But Paisley hasn’t rested on these laurels, and has really done his utmost to achieve a quite astonishing feat of loathsomeness, beating off stiff competition to become easily the most poisonous figure in UK politics in my lifetime – Cameron, Blair, even Thatcher cannot rival him in terms of naked evil.

This is a man who is almost singlehandedly responsible for the bloodshed in Northern Ireland since the mid 1960s. This isn’t to say that he hasn’t been helped in this by the paramilitaries on both sides and by the British government, but the fact is that none of it could have happened without him. When he appeared on the political scene the IRA was virtually dead and Northern Ireland, despite the appalling injustice suffered by the nationalist community ever since the partition of Ireland, was relatively peaceful.

Indeed to use the phrase “nationalist community” may be inaccurate – though quite rightly disgruntled, the Civil Rights marchers who began their campaign in the 1960s were not calling for a united Ireland, merely peacefully demanding to be treated as equal citizens within the United Kingdom. That they were doing so perhaps even indicates that many of them had, if somewhat reluctantly, accepted the legitimacy of the British crown. At no time was the union remotely under threat, in fact until Paisley came along it was barely challenged. The response of Paisley was to do everything within his power to thwart the entirely reasonable and humane demands of the Civil Rights movement, by any means necessary. This meant, above all else, stoking up sectarian violence on the part of both the unionist community and the police.

I have no romantic illusions about the paramilitaries on either side and no intention of defending how they have terrorised each others’ and their own communities, but Paisley’s actions left no alternative to the formation of the Provisional IRA, who for a while became the sole effective defenders of catholics at a time when those who had chosen the peaceful route were being beaten senseless or worse by police or loyalists. It cannot be forgotten that the first terrorist murders of the modern troubles were of catholic men, years before the Provisionals existed. The rest is familiar history – thanks to the sectarianism that Paisley had stirred up, the IRA was brought back from the dead and thousands of people were killed in decades of pointless, tit-for-tat murders.

The fact that this has now pretty much stopped is no thanks to him. Despite his paramilitary links he has always kept the loyalists at a cowardly and hypocritical distance, feeding their idiotic paranoia whilst taking no responsibility for the consequences. When even these organisations tired of their senseless war of attrition and pledged support for the Belfast agreement, Paisley attacked them for selling out. At an anti-agreement meeting he turned his lynch mob on Gary McMichael, the son of a UDA commander who had been murdered by the IRA, for attempting to challenge Paisley’s argument. It may stick in the throat a little to say it, but at a stretch it might be possible to describe the IRA, UDA and UVF, in their support for the Belfast agreement, as peacemakers. In Paisley’s case on the other hand, to use his favourite word, never.

Eventually of course Paisley did accept a form of power sharing, famously or rather infamously developing a smug rapport with former IRA chief Martin McGuinness, but this is hardly anything to be applauded. Power sharing, after all, was what the Civil Rights marchers had been demanding, and without his poisonous intervention would have been possible decades previously. Then he had bitterly opposed it, and in doing so ensured decades of bloodshed. The only way he would accept power sharing was in the form of a sick coalition of his own thugs and the IRA gangsters he had always claimed to despise. Thousands of people in Northern Ireland died for no other reason than to secure Paisley’s coronation as First Minister, with a terrorist as his deputy.

I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface here in terms of cataloguing his crimes. I could also mention his vicious, bullying homophobia, though without wishing to disrespect gay people, I can’t help viewing this as a secondary issue in the light of the sectarian murders he’s been responsible for. His lifetime achievement has been to fuel hatred and frustrate peace. His death cannot come soon enough.