Ian Paisley is dead. That much you’ll probably already know. And we can now expect a stampede of commentators hailing his remarkable transition from appalling bigot who stood in the way of peace to appalling bigot who enabled it.
And this will be a lie.
Ian Paisley did not “enable” peace. He stood in its way at every turn as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. His demand was “peace on our terms”, and peace on our terms is a declaration of war.
I remember shortly after Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997, he held a meeting at Downing Street for Northern Ireland’s political leaders. A peace process had taken root under Blair’s predecessor John Major, but it had fallen apart amid rows over IRA weapons decommissioning and the fraught issue of Orange Order marches. An IRA ceasefire had been called but collapsed. Northern Ireland was once more at war.
Those Orange Order marches in the mid-90s were symbolic, especially the march at Drumcree. Drumcree was the annual flashpoint back then. In 1995 Paisley and his arch rival, Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, marched shoulder to shoulder in defence of the loyalist hardliners of the Orange brigade.
That unionist unity didn’t last. The Downing Street meeting in 1997 opened a schism between Trimble and Paisley. Paisley emerged onto the steps of 10 Downing Street and bellowed that the peace process was “dead in the water”. Trimble, by contrast, tentatively entered multi-party talks later that year.
For almost the next decade Paisley tried to block any progress in Northern Ireland. He opposed the Good Friday Agreement. He opposed power sharing. He opposed police reform. He opposed compromises on marches. He refused to accept that the IRA was decommissioning weapons. After Dr No and Senator No, Paisley became The Reverend No.
Meanwhile David Trimble signed up to the Good Friday Agreement, became Northern Ireland’s First Minister, and despite huge political pressure from both Paisley and his own UUP, he backed away from pulling the plug on the peace process in the face of ongoing low-level IRA violence.
Unionists came to despise him. He survived two UUP leadership challenges and had three MPs resign the party whip. Power-sharing broke down and the Stormont parliament did not sit for five years.
Whilst Trimble was in the wars in search of peace, Paisley was gathering his troops. UUP support collapsed amidst unionist discontent with the stalling peace process. In 2005, with Stormont still suspended, Paisley’s DUP trounced Trimble’s UUP at the general election – Trimble even lost his seat in parliament. Flattened by this earthquake and hated by his own side, Trimble quit as party leader and stepped down from frontline politics.
And so with Trimble and the UUP out of the way and the DUP well head in Northern Irish polls, Paisley started his remarkable and not-at-all cynical “transformation”. In 2006, with the First Minister’s chair there for the taking, he changed his mind – on everything. Power-sharing was not the death of unionism after all; Sinn Fein were not terrorists in suits. It’s remarkable how things look different when you need them to.
Paisley signed up to the 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement that paved the way for fresh elections and the resumption of the Stormont parliament. Predictably, the DUP – having built its political strength from opposing power-sharing and the peace process – came out well in front, and Paisley hardly batted an eyelid as he took power alongside Sinn Fein. He and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness got on so well they became known as the ‘Chuckle Brothers’. At least someone found it funny.
And so the man who had risked everything for the peace process, lost everything – and the man who had risked nothing by opposing it, reaped its rewards. Don’t tell that story to your children.
There are very few politicians I have any time for. But if there’s one thing I do respect, it’s taking personal risks to do the right thing – particularly in facing down one’s own side.
There are any number of bones you can pick throughout David Trimble’s career – as a conservative-minded politician from the oppressing side in a long-term conflict, it’s inevitable.
But as fawning eulogies glut their way across the press, it’s worth keeping in mind that Northern Ireland would have been in a far better state without Ian Paisley, but would never have reached peace without the forgotten David Trimble.