By Peter Makem
Ian Paisley suddenly came back into everybody’s living room. Not as the ranting, roaring demagogue but as an old soft spoken somewhat confused 87 year old who had agreed to do a series of TV interviews reflecting on his life.
Now and again he raised eyebrows with his statements that in fact Catholics had been discriminated against in housing, voting rights and gerrymandering — but he could not admit such at the time, he muttered, as the Civil Rights Movement was a political front for a move toward a united Ireland. Forty years after Bloody Sunday, he admitted he was shocked and angered by the killing of 13 people.
Then the old Paisley rose up inside him when he asserted that the Dublin/Monaghan bombs planted by the UVF that killed over 30 people in 1974 were “understandable” because of the Dublin Government’s attitude to the North. So were the Troubles understandable because of unionist entrenchment and discrimination? He wasn’t asked.
Did he repent of his inflammatory language and anti-Catholic bile? No. He never condoned violence! He was not responsible, he said, for the actions of people who listened to his sectarian outbursts and took up arms to murder Catholics over 30 years.
But behind all the mixed signals is the fact that he is now a reject sad old man. He was dumped by his DUP party (which he founded) a mere six months after he became First Minister at the age of 82. He was dumped as leader of the Free Presbyterian Church (which he founded) and by his own branch of the Orange Order and life is going on without him. His most bitter feelings are now against such as Peter Robinson who succeeded him and, as Paisley would have it, did a Brutus on him. He is a rejected and confused figure.
But nothing can change the position that he was a power hungry, ruthless, controlling individual who denounced and crushed every unionist leader until he became Top Cat or Top Dog or whatever it is, leaving a trail of destruction behind him and then, to quote myself, he found that the point of ripeness is the point of rot. There is no doubt that he articulated a depth of fear and bigotry in unionism — the same depth of fear that Hitler sensed in the Germans after the Versailles Treaty, and played on that all his life until the hour of glory arrived at last when he was made First Minister.
But as I write, and as Paisley’s sun is setting, I sense others moving into his steps. Unionists are unhappy again. Loud voices are sounding. The two major tribes are stern of face again. Each side is feeding off the other to raise their profile among their own people. So while old age gathers around Paisley and confronts his life, it is not what is happening at his dusk that should concern, but what may be coming again in the East.