Clifford Smyth Asks The Question: Who Was Ian Paisley?

Amongst the many Loyalist zealots who allied themselves with Ian Paisley over the decades only to be discarded when their value to the Big Man had been drained and exhausted – think Major Bunting, the Rev Billy Beattie, Ernie Baird – few ever attempted afterwards to assess the man who had courted, used and then ditched them. Clifford Smyth is an exception.

Clifford Smyth, standing as a DUP election candidate for a Sunningdale Assembly seat in North Antrim, Ian Paisley's bailiwick, 1973.

Clifford Smyth, standing as a DUP election candidate for a Sunningdale Assembly seat in North Antrim, Ian Paisley’s bailiwick, 1973.

In the early to mid-1970’s he was one of Paisley’s closest confidantes, first failing to win but then inheriting a seat in the ill-fated Sunningdale Assembly of 1974,  getting elected to its successor, the NI Convention and becoming secretary to the powerful United Unionist Coalition, a brief experiment in Unionist unity which, with Paisley as a leading member, was a living contradiction in terms.

In 1976 he fell out with Paisley and was expelled from the DUP in circumstances that yet have to be fully explained and which followed a kangaroo court presided over by Paisley and his then new favorite, Peter Robinson, the only deputy to the Big Man wily and ruthless enough to survive the experience and to eventually wield and plunge the assassin’s dagger himself.

Clifford Smyth, a history teacher by trade, then joined the Ulster Unionists but after a couple of failed attempts to get elected to Westminster his political interest switched to Orange history and he embraced the cause of the political integration of Northern Ireland with Britain, an objective that has over time won the support of luminaries like Edward Carson and Enoch Powell but never caught fire amongst the Unionist grassroots. In 1988 he published a study of Paisley, “Ian Paisley: Voice of Protestant Ulster”.

I have known and have considered Clifford Smyth a friend since the mid-1960’s when we were members of the same political science tutorial group at Queen’s University, Belfast. Here, in a guest posting, is his take on the late Ian Paisley:

Death has transformed Lord Bannside, Ian Paisley to you and me, from a political colossus into a ‘family man’. This assessment of Ian Paisley underlines the enigma that is Paisley.

His political career reaches back to the 1960s when a tall, gangling , youthful preacher on the fundamentalist wing of Ulster Protestantism began to make a name for himself on the fringes of Northern Ireland’s stable and peaceful society. Contemporaneously, Irish Republicans were reflecting on why the IRA campaign waged between 1956 and ’62, had failed, and how a reshaped strategy might succeed.

Paisley’s trajectory would carry him through a succession of opportunistic political adventures, any one of which could have ended in ignominious failure, to emerge six decades later as First Minister of a power-sharing devolved assembly at Stormont. And with whom did Paisley and his DUP party share-power , but none other than the loyalist and unionist population’s arch enemies Sinn Fein, led by Martin McGuinness, formerly the Provisional IRA’s commander in Derry. This reconciliation took place between polar opposites, Sinn Fein articulating Irish Republican demands, and the DUP, voice of Ulster’s Protestant and unionist heartlands.

These conflicting forces didn’t exactly inherit the kingdom. The small geographical area of Northern Ireland contrasts markedly with the horrendous scale and intensity of the civil disturbances, that held the Province in their grip for nearly forty years. Against this background, the reconciliation achieved between opposing forces was, by any stretch of the imagination, remarkable.

In the moments after Ian Paisley’s death was announced, the eulogies started to flow. Eamon Mallie described these new arrangements for the governance of Northern Ireland as ‘miraculous’; though Paisley’s pragmatic manoeuvrings had previously delayed a resolution of the conflict. There were though, to be few challenges to the themes of peace and reconciliation.

In the succeeding forty-eight hours the term ‘ colossus’ became so over- worked that more reasoned assessments languished in its shadow. Paisley was a ‘faithful preacher’, and a ‘man of deep faith’, who, it appeared, had almost single-handedly launched Northern Ireland on the road to peace. Questions about the destruction of the middle ground in Northern Ireland’s sectarian landscape were never asked, while the unsettling reality that the current power-sharing assembly is in a state of stasis wasn’t even aired.

Meanwhile, the Paisley family announced, to the astonishment of many onlookers, that the funeral arrangements were strictly private and that Dr. Paisley would be interred in a discreet burial ground in rural County Down. The contrast between Paisley’s death and his life couldn’t have been more pronounced. This was a larger- than- life personality whose adult career appeared, at times, to consist of one publicity stunt after another.

Ian Paisley’s death left so many major questions unanswered. Here was a life that had made a formidable impact on Northern Ireland’s Roman Catholic and Protestant population. Everyone had an opinion of the man, for good or ill, but the task of arriving at a fair and balanced understanding was proving elusive.

The most immediate of these questions turns on why the unionist leader, indelibly marked with saying ‘No!’, reinforcing the finality of that word with a declamatory ‘never,never,never’, found it expedient to ultimately say,’Yes!’

And so it came about that the street orator, who had so antagonised and demeaned his Roman Catholic neighbours, ended his career by driving a wedge between himself and the Free Presbyterian Church, which had grown over the years until most of Ulster’s towns and villages had their very own ‘Free Church’. These churches played an unseen, but vital, role in Paisley’s rise to prominence. On election day church buses, mission halls, telephones, and even the congregations, were all mobilised to get the voters to the polls.

Feeling betrayed by ‘the Big Man’s’ compromise with Sinn Fein, ministers and congregations of the Free Presbyterian Church, were deeply alienated. These Free Presbyterians were not alone. Their ranks were swollen by the humble and unsophisticated loyalist followers of Paisley who had vociferously identified with his traditional unionist campaigns.

Some commentators said that Paisley had had an ‘epiphany’, a moment of spiritual insight, in which he had recognized the need to make peace with the public representatives of a terrorist organisation that had entered into a process to decommission its extensive armoury. Others though – and this is where cynicism and realism become bedfellows – held to the opinion that a politician shaped by a heady mixture of ruthlessness and pragmatism, was coming under irresistible pressure from the British, Irish and American governments to do the deal. And the prize of ‘ First Minister’ held its own temptations for a man driven by the need to be top dog.

Other questions arise and call for answers if a more complete understanding of the man is to be achieved. The most penetrating of these is how Ian Paisley succeeded in smashing the hegemony of the Ulster Unionist Party which had dominated Northern Ireland’s politics since the inception of the state in 1921? Not only did Paisley destroy Ulster Unionism as a credible political movement, but he succeeded in mobilising a phalanx of newcomers, who entered the political fray winning seats in local , Westminster and even the European parliament.

The answer is that Paisley almost single-handedly, built his own power structures which mimicked, and soon supplanted, those of the organizations which he set out to rival. His main targets were the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Orange Order. Paisley created his own, ‘Free’ Church, his own party, the Protestant Unionists and the sash- wearing Ulster Protestant Volunteers. Onlookers would have dismissed these movements as comical or of no consequence, but they proved to be a battering ram that opened the gates to much greater things. Paisley didn’t hesitate to jettison elements that had served their purpose. Neither the Protestant Unionist Party nor the UPV lasted, but out of them emerged a party shorn of religious zealotry, the Democratic Unionist Party, that would appeal to a much wider electorate.

The structures that Paisley forged were tightly disciplined, lacking in transparency, energetic and unscrupulous. There were many casualties on Paisley’s drive for power: internal dissent was not tolerated, and a degree of loyalty demanded from followers that fringed on idol worship. Paisley used the tactic of ‘coalitions’ with those who shared similar aims, to undermine them and grab their supporters.

Paisley’s divisive approach to unionist politics would eventually ensure his triumph but his methods guaranteed that a fractured unionism would never negotiate from strength but only from weakness because, try as he might, Paisley could never capture the affections and support of all the unionist electorate.

Meanwhile Northern Ireland had entered ever more deeply into the nightmare years of ‘The Troubles’. And had not Paisley warned us all that these things would come to pass, that the ‘B’ Specials, Ulster’s locally recruited part-time constabulary to back up the RUC, would ‘go’ and that even Stormont would fall.

The term’ colossus’ has its roots in this Paisley phenomenon, the sense that here was a man who came out of nowhere and seized his destiny to be leader of Ulster whether people liked it or not. And to validate this destiny, all that was necessary was to top the poll in the European elections. And Paisley did that, with heaps of votes to spare!

Among the many tributes paid to Dr Paisley, the warmest came from a close religious colleague, the Rev. David McIlveen. The Rev. McIlveen stressed Ian Paisley’s ‘walk with God’ and asserted that this was ‘a man of Faith’, who read his Bible at every opportunity and prayed without ceasing. Sitting next to David McIlveen in the BBC radio studio, as the Irish writer Ruth Dudley Edwards launched a relentless verbal attack on Paisley, you could see the shock, sadness and grief well up in the minister’s face as he attempted to come to terms with such fierce criticism. Were there actually two Ian Paisleys?

One of the most startling and unsettling aspects of Paisley’s DUP is the party’s addiction to ‘spin’. Given the origins of the DUP, with its historic links through the ‘Free Church’ and the Protestant Unionists, it comes as a surprise to find that the Party is skilled in the use of all of the black arts associated with contemporary media management. Nor has the party modified the methods of control that shaped it: tight discipline and a code of silence.

Northern Ireland is riven by a series of sectarian fault lines, and this beautiful place, at the edge of British Isles, carries within it a parochial mindset that often finds expression in unusual ways. Graffiti on a gable end in a republican estate near Newry used to read: ’local informers will be shot!’ Presumably informers in some other locality weren’t their problem.

Given the divisions over religion, politics, culture, education and even sport, people have to ask themselves whether they can learn to live together as neighbours despite being beset by such differences or whether, as in so many instances in Ulster’s turbulent past it is only a matter of time until violence emerges from the pit once again.

Ian Paisley had a choice to strive for political dominance or to become a preacher of world renown. Paisley chose politics at a time when Northern Ireland needed to hear the greater message: ‘love thy neighbour’.

7 responses to “Clifford Smyth Asks The Question: Who Was Ian Paisley?

  1. Paisley did not have a Damascene moment!
    He was told by Blair that he had the choice of going into government with Sinn Fein or the British and Irish governments would jointly rule N Ireland.
    He chose the lesser of the two ‘evils’.
    But the most remarkable thing around his death was the fact that the only person contacted by the Paisley family to come to the deathbed to say his last farewell was Martin McGuinness – nobody from his own DUP.

  2. That only Martin McGuinness —and not anyone from his own DUP Party was invited to his deathbed is telling & corroborates the possibility that -yes-he may indeed have had an epiphany–Paisley saw someone he could trust-and unfortunately recognized the treachery and opportunism of Peter Robinson a little too late.

  3. Ed, don’t think this would be something that would be publicized-bad taste if it came from Sinn Fein–would seem like exploitation–rather this is something that may have been leaked -inadvertently… think McGuinness & Paisley had a better working relationship than McGuinness and Peter Robinson–Robinson seems a bit of a troublemaker( liked your book on Paisley) Sabina

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