The man once seen as the embodiment of Protestant supremacism has agreed to share power with Sinn Féin. But did Northern Ireland have to wait for his giant ego to rise to the top of the unionist pile before a deal was possible?by Mick Fealty / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
Ian Paisley has been the single most disruptive figure in Northern Ireland’s unionist politics over the last 40 years. Yet at the end of March, the veto-wielding “Dr No” agreed to end a conflict that has claimed almost 3,700 lives and stained British and Irish life for two generations. In early May, the 81 year old will become first minister in a new Northern Ireland power-sharing executive. As if to underline the painstaking political choreography that lay behind the final deal, it was clinched with a photo opportunity the precise details of which took several senior civil servants many hours to agree to the satisfaction of both Paisley’s Democratic Unionist party (DUP) and Sinn Féin. A week later Paisley was in Dublin, warmly gripping the hands of the Irish taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.
It was all very different in the early 1960s, when Paisley—always a striking presence at 6’2,” with his booming voice and well-groomed appearance—was first emerging on the political scene. In those days the Irish republic was still introverted and poverty-stricken, with a per capita income almost one third below Northern Ireland. At this time the north was still a relatively prosperous outpost of Britain, with its strait-laced, hard-working Protestant unionist majority and still largely acquiescent, semi-excluded Catholic minority. The southern and northern prime ministers were recognised as social and economic modernisers. But when the taoiseach, Seán Lemass, travelled from Dublin to Belfast to meet Terence O’Neill in 1965, Paisley and his supporters assailed him with a flurry of snowballs.
Underwriting northern prosperity were the heavy industries of shipbuilding and aircraft manufacture, manned almost exclusively by the Protestant working class. As Steve Bruce, in The Edge of the Union, notes, “Until the 1960s, Protestants saw themselves as superior. In so far as [they had] advantages, they merited them. Catholics were a joke. Their country was backward, their industry non-existent and their farming hopelessly antiquated. Then, apparently out of nowhere, the Catholic minority acquired skilled, articulate politicians… who were young and clever and knew how to court public opinion.”
Paisley was widely seen, in Britain as well as Ireland, as the embodiment of Protestant supremacism. His attacks on liberal ecumenists like Donald Soper earned him a deeply negative reputation in London, which took him aback when he first arrived at Westminster in 1970. Paisley’s belief in the superiority of…