Comment - Warren Little - The ego that quashed the morals

Published: 17 Jan 2014 09:300 comments

On a winter’s night in the 1980s, Ian Paisley led a motley band of militant followers through the streets of Enniskillen. He stomped along like an overgrown boy scout, leading a troupe of men with surly expressions just visible beneath their Parka hoods.

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It was an example of Paisley’s oft-repeated game of flirting with the paramilitary, impregnating young loyalists with sectarian rage and then pretending he wasn’t the father. He validated violence upon the prospect of it but then denounced the actualities. His Enniskillen jamboree, like all his others before and since, dissolved in angry chaos. Nothing achieved.

Footage of those scenes imparts something of the genuine menace that was Paisley’s aim, but something of Dennis the Menace too. There was an uneasy mix of farce and malevolence about the whole thing, like some Channel Five documentary When Good Boys’ Brigades Turn Bad, and it offers a neat snapshot of Paisley’s character. Even now in the gloaming of his years, just like that night in Enniskillen, he has the capacity to bemuse, offend and threaten in equal measure.

At the root of all this marching up to the top of the hill before promptly disappearing was an insatiable ego, and it is that which seems to have driven Paisley to these final interviews. The media has indulged his desire to read his own obituaries, though unfortunately for him they don’t quite amount to the elegies he tried to provoke.

The big revelation of Monday’s broadcast came in a statement that was well elucidated, exposing the lie that he’s too old to know what he’s saying: ‘It wasn’t fair’, he said of the system that returned a unionist council in majority nationalist Fermanagh. ‘Fair government is that every man has the same power to vote for whatever he wants. If you vote down democracy you are responsible for bringing in anarchy, and they brought in anarchy…the whole system was wrong. It wasn’t one man one vote.’

With that, you could almost hear the WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY THIS AT THE TIME collective despair. For an image so crafted on notions of candour and courage of conviction, this is fatal. We haven’t witnessed a Damascene conversion. This was no enlightenment in the quiet of a pre-death hiatus. Paisley held these views all along and just didn’t have the guts to say so. ‘I would rather be British than fair’ was the best he could muster in 1968.

For all his narcissism he hadn’t the confidence to lead by conviction. Worse than that, he led absolutely counter to his conviction and became a criminal for it, jailed for an illegal demonstration against a civil rights protest he privately regarded as justified. How different things might have been if he and other unionists of the 50s and 60s had been principled and intelligent enough to pare away civil injustice and right it; to drive a wedge between that issue and the republican terrorists that exploited it.

What are we to do with Paisley’s admission now? The unjust policies were corrected by 1973 but the seeds of the ‘long war’ had already been sown. Paisley’s johnny-come-lately revelation is like the designer of the Titanic pointing out, as it lay on the sea bed, that there were plenty more lifeboats hidden in a cupboard under the stairs.

We can try to spot those Paisleys still active in politics today – those without the courage to do and say what they know to be right. We can also be wary of language and delivery. Paisley knew how to use his distinctive voice. He bellowed and barked several decibels above the low rasping we heard on Monday night. If only he had told the truth in the caterwaul of his prime as in the fading wheeze of his going.

Paisley readily deploys the big guns of emotive poetry honed from the Old Testament. But his gift for language comes with a dangerous addiction to the incendiary effect of it. He was the pyromaniac pastor, the pyrotechnic preacher. A man with a recall for proverbs but a perversion of Proverbs, that book of the Bible that centres on wisdom and appeals to human reason and from which Paisley twisted the ‘dog returns to its vomit’ quote to reference the Pope.

A flair for language does not always make a man’s use of it wise. Highly skilled oration and charisma can offer false beacons, and God knows many men have been battered on the rocks of Paisley’s rhetoric.

As the Paisley interview was being broadcast, the Belfast poet Sinéad Morrissey was quietly winning the TS Eliot, described as the ‘world’s best poetry prize’. The daughter of a nominally Irish Catholic father and an English Protestant mother, who both eschewed religion altogether, Morrissey embodies a certain triumph in the failure of Paisley’s life’s work. Her very being is Paisley’s dystopia, a child of ‘spiritual fornication and adultery’ and agnosticism at the same time.

It is Morrissey, not Paisley, that offers hope in this place. Her collection is entitled ‘Parallax’, a word meaning the difference in the apparent position of something when viewed from different angles. Paisley has proved to our surprise that the parallax inherent in our politics is not a concept that is alien to him, merely that he was too weak and scared to express it when it mattered most.

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