‘It takes a long time to die’

Susan McKay

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The Democratic Unionist Party is happiest in a field. At the Ramada Hotel in Belfast, where the party held its annual conference in early May, plastic flags and DUP chocolate bars were on sale at a stall outside the ballroom door, and the atmosphere of an outdoor rally was quickly established.

The highlight, naturally, was the address by the party leader, the Reverend Ian Paisley. Carson and Craigavon, he said, had given their lives to save Northern Ireland from republicanism: ‘There was always a man for the hour and the hour for the man.’ Now, in this hour, the unionist people had given Paisley ‘the custodianship of the province’. It was ‘a solemn and terrifying responsibility’.

There would be no talking to the enemy, said Paisley, until all its guns were surrendered, or, if necessary, taken by force. ‘No amount of appeasement will ever satisfy the monster of blood,’ he warned. ‘He who quickens and makes stronger the appetite of this monster will become its final gulp and swallow. The monster must be killed off or it will kill us.’

The Catholic Church and the Irish government were united behind the IRA. Unionism had been ‘softened by political expediency’ under the Ulster Unionist Party, and was ‘spineless’. The DUP would not join ‘the Trimble-ite slaves in the tents of republicanism’. True unionism was on the march. ‘We will all one day stand before God and give an account of our stewardship,’ Paisley intoned. ‘Let us gird ourselves with a new undimmed consecration so that we shall fight a good fight, finish the course and keep the faith.’ He is seventy-seven now and looking frail. The voice doesn’t boom any more. But his people adore him and he will not go gently.

Before delivering his main address, Paisley had introduced speeches by his deputy leader, Peter Robinson, and the party’s candidate for the European Parliament, Jim Allister. The conference marked the launch of Allister’s campaign, though Paisley had already, months earlier, declared the election to be ‘a life and death battle for Ulster’s existence!’

‘Europe is not our fatherland,’ he said at the conference. ‘You’ll never turn an Ulsterman into an Irishman … God has made us as we are.’ God had destroyed the tower of Babel, but the enlarged Europe, a superstate, would be a new tower of Babel. There would be a reaping. God had made his son king of kings. ‘It is into this situation that Jim Allister is going to come.’

Allister, a barrister generally perceived as dry, surprised everyone with a long, entertaining speech that mixed biblical allusions with references to Eastenders and donkey derbies. Paisley stood at his shoulder with a grin like a neon light. Then he held his disciple’s hand aloft and paraded off shouting, ‘No surrender! Not an inch!’

The DUP loves to mimic Sinn Féin, and Peter Robinson triumphally appropriated the republican cry, Tiochfaidh ar lá: ‘Our day has come!’ he announced. But it was also Robinson who had the task of introducing a note of compromise into the proceedings, warning that ‘We cannot chart our course from where we would like unionism to be placed. We have to deal with the landscape as the UUP has left it.’

This was a victory jamboree, and Robinson’s cautionary note was a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand. Last November’s elections for the Northern Ireland legislative assembly, and the defections from the UUP to the DUP that followed it, established the DUP as the North’s largest party, with 33 MLAs to the UUP’s 24. Although the assembly is a strictly notional body at the moment, having been suspended by the British government in 2002, the DUP’s political ascendancy is unmistakable. If and when the suspension is lifted, Paisley could take office as First Minister, or let his deputy Robinson assume the post, and have four other DUP ministers on the ruling executive. The UUP, the SDLP and Sinn Féin would head just two ministries each.

But the DUP has a huge job to do, among its own. Before November, it could blame the traditionally dominant UUP for all that had, in its view, been lost. Now there is a difficult truth to face. Power must be shared with those whom Paisley is still calling the ‘enemies of Ulster’. The promised land to which he has led his people has Catholics in it.

There is an element of the double act about the DUP at this point. While Peter Robinson was delivering his speech at the conference, his leader could be heard on BBC Radio Ulster. In an interview recorded the night before the conference, he dismissed the system of balances established by the Belfast Agreement, whereby the positions of first minister and deputy first minister cannot both be in unionist (or nationalist) hands. ‘The person that gets the mandate should have the power to carry out his policy,’ he said. ‘The prime minister of the country is the prime minister of the country.’

There was no reference to this at the conference. Robinson and the younger leadership figures understand that there can be no going back to the old days of majority rule; that if power is to be exercised by Northern Ireland politicians in a devolved government, it must be shared between unionists and nationalists. Paisley persists in the old rhetoric. He keeps repeating that there will be no talking to the terrorists; but of course his party has been engaged with Sinn Féin for years, at local council level, and within the assembly until its collapse in 2002. Paisley himself led the assembly’s agriculture committee to Portavogie, a militantly loyalist fishing village on the Ards peninsula. The delegation included Sinn Féin’s Francie Molloy, a hardliner from the republican heartlands of East Tyrone. The photographer Kelvin Boyes took a telling picture. In the foreground, Paisley, looking into a boat. Behind him, at his shoulder, Molloy. In the background, Ian Paisley Jr, sprinting forward a moment too late to warn his father.

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In 1949, when Paisley set up his first mission in the Docks ward of Belfast, the working-class area was represented by a Labour MP at Westminster. Paisley set about winning the seat back for a wealthy Unionist. Gerry Fitt is quoted in Ed Moloney and Andy Pollack’s biography of Paisley recalling how the young minister stood on a street corner ‘roaring like a bull’ that ‘you’re voting for your Protestantism’.

Billy Mitchell came under the influence of this doomsday preaching when he was a young man in the late 1950s. Then Paisley was warning, ‘It is better to face the stern facts now than to realize too late our peril when hopelessly wrecked on the reefs of disaster.’ There was talk of the need to arm and to fight. ‘We took it literally,’ Mitchell told me. ‘It got out of control.’

Mitchell, a born-again Sunday-school teacher with a taste for rock ’n’ roll, joined the Ulster Volunteer Force, set up in the sixties to emulate Carson’s 1913 anti-Home Rule militia, and became an organizer of Paisley’s Ulster Protestant Volunteers. ‘We didn’t have a coherent ideology,’ he said. ‘Our political analysis was that Ulster was being sold out. Our philosophy was “not an inch”. We knew what we were against, but we didn’t know what we were for.’

Paisley was ambitious for martyrdom. Jailed in 1966 for unlawful assembly, he wrote in his prison diaries, ‘Gospel preaching is charged with the dynamite of heaven. Dynamite to be displayed in all its power is set alight with the fire of the Holy Ghost, and when the gospel dynamite is exploded, what tremendous results occur!’ In his essay ‘Paisley’s Progress’, Tom Paulin notes that it was just three years later that the UVF carried out a series of bomb attacks that brought down the reformist government of Terence O’Neill. ‘Puritan metaphor is a form of irony which has a habit of becoming literal,’ Paulin writes.

Mitchell murdered two men while in the UVF and spent many years in prison. ‘When you incite people to form armies and then walk away, you create a monster and the monster does what it wants,’ he told me. ‘Mary Shelley could have written Frankenstein about us.’ Mitchell became disillusioned with Paisleyism. In 1979 he was one of the founders of the UVF’s political arm, the Progressive Unionist Party, which would support the peace process.

The DUP dismissed the PUP as communists and traitors, and always insists it won’t talk to terrorists. But Paisley has talked with loyalist terrorists all his political life. The Cameron commission’s inquiry into the early events of the Troubles found that Paisley and the organizations with which he was ‘closely and authoritatively concerned’ must ‘bear a heavy share of direct responsibility for the disorders’. It was Paisley who declared that Protestantism, having been betrayed, must be ‘prepared to use the mailed fist’, who paraded with masked men, and who declared that the Anglo-Irish Agreement would be ‘resisted to the death’. In 1997 the DUP MP Reverend Willie McCrea shared a platform with Billy Wright, a mass murderer and figure of terror for Catholics in mid Ulster. But then, as a Portadown businesswoman said of Wright, ‘he may be a psychopath, but at least he’s our psychopath’.

Paisley has long been the master of what Derek Mahon, in his poem ‘Ecclesiastes’, calls ‘bleak afflatus’. His people are at home with apocalypse. In 1805, Henry Grattan spoke in the British House of Commons about those who stirred up panic so that ‘then walk forth the men of blood’. A political cartoon by Ian Knox from 1992 encapsulates the way the DUP has kept this tradition alive. It shows two crocodiles: a large one, wearing a dog collar and carrying a bible, and a smaller one, with a sash and bowler hat. They hold control leads for a little robot that carries a sledgehammer and a gun. The crocodiles weep. ‘So much hatred,’ says one. The other wonders, ‘Where does it all come from?’

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The dire consequences that Paisley predicted would follow the Belfast Agreement have not come to pass. The IRA has stopped killing Protestants. Yet it is in these relatively quiet times that Paisley has been chosen as the leader of unionism, while the UUP, which backed the agreement, has fallen into disarray.

John Hewitt’s poem ‘The Coasters’, written in the 1960s, stands as a fitting comment on a process that came to fruition in the 2003 elections. In the poem, the unionist middle classes are doing well, and are convinced of their own broadmindedness – ‘a friend or two of the other sort’. They assume, without evidence, that ‘relations are improving’.

When that noisy preacher started
He seemed old fashioned, a survival.
Later, you remarked on his vehemence,
A bit on the rough side.
But you said, admit it, in the club,
‘You know, there’s something in what he says.’

Although it supported the Belfast Agreement, the UUP – which has traditionally commanded the support of the class Hewitt examined in ‘The Coasters’ – showed no enthusiasm for the deal. The party’s leader, David Trimble, sat on an executive with Sinn Féin ministers, but he refused to shake their hands. He tolerated a vehemently anti-agreement element in his party, where it eroded his authority. (The most prominent UUP dissident, Jeffrey Donaldson, defected to the DUP after the election, and was on the platform at the Ramada conference; Paisley called him ‘little Jeffrey’, and Donaldson beamed.) Instead of countering Paisley’s perpetual taunt of treachery, Trimble tried to out-Paisley him, and inevitably failed.

The drift towards the DUP was inexorable. The executive collapsed. Paisley declared himself vindicated. Unionists believed him. One of the first middle-class Ulster Unionists to defect was Peter Weir, who is a barrister. On election day 2003 he said he had ‘a doctor at one polling station, an architect at another, a solicitor at another – along with people from housing estates’. Weir said the DUP wasn’t like other parties: ‘There is a sense of siege and that holds people together.’

This sense has been cultivated by the party. The Belfast Agreement was good only for Catholics. You have to be a Catholic to get a job now. The new rule whereby 50 per cent of those taken on to train as police officers must be Catholic is outrageous discrimination. The British are planning to ‘put the terrorist gunmen in charge of security’ -– this last in an editorial by Paisley in his church magazine, The Revivalist, which goes on to warn that this will mean ‘curtains for the Protestants of Ulster’. There is a continued insistence that there was nothing wrong with Ulster until the IRA came and wrecked it. And there is denial about past loyalist and state violence, and about the level of such violence now.

On Remembrance Sunday 2001, sixteen-year-old Glen ‘Spacer’ Branagh, from the loyalist Tiger’s Bay neighbourhood in the Docks area of North Belfast, went out with his mates to start a riot with Catholic teenagers across the road in nationalist New Lodge. He had a crude blast bomb. When he raised his arm to throw it, it exploded and killed him. Local loyalists immediately claimed that republicans had thrown the bomb at loyalist women and children, and Branagh had died a hero, trying to save them. The lie persisted, despite CCTV evidence.

Branagh had been a member of the youth wing of the Ulster Defence Association, and at his funeral the UDA marched through Tiger’s Bay, hundreds of men and boys in dark suits with tattoos and hard faces. They passed a plaque to Buck Alec, a street fighter who had kept toothless lions in his back yard and had helped Paisley put up unionist posters in nationalist streets in 1949.

Among those at the funeral was John ‘Grugg’ Gregg, former leader of the UDA. He and his paramilitary henchmen had voted for the Belfast Agreement to get their men out of prison. Soon afterwards, he said, they returned to the Paisley view of the agreement. You knew where you were with Paisley, he explained. But what Paisley is going to do about this redundant army and the communities in which it thrived is as yet unknown.

The past few years have seen several terrifying manifestations of incoherent rage in the loyalist heartlands. In Paisley’s North Antrim constituency, there was the Harryville ‘protest’ in 1997, when for several months loyalists besieged Catholics going to mass at a Ballymena chapel. People were dragged from their homes and cars, and beaten. Efforts were made to burn the priests out of the parochial house. DUP figures were behind the picket, claiming that it was in response to the banning of a loyal-orders parade.

In 2000, loyalists in the broken-down Glenbryn area of North Belfast held a protest which involved yelling foul abuse and hurling bags of urine and blast bombs at four- and five-year-old girls on their way to the Holy Cross school in Ardoyne. IRA harassment was given as the reason for this blockade.

In 2003, loyalists smashed up gravestones and threatened a priest who conducted a blessing of Catholic graves in a mixed cemetery in Belfast. One woman said she was outraged because holy water had been spilt on her father’s grave. Glenbryn loyalists took to putting Catholics out of the mixed Deerpark area. One woman found her child’s cat dismembered on her doorstep. Loyalists claimed Catholics were taking their homes.

Unionism has neglected its poor. Just 3 per cent of children from the most deprived Protestant areas pass the 11-plus exam, which selects those who will go to grammar schools. The DUP militantly supports retaining the exam and the grammar school system. The party says unionism has got off its knees, but there is little sign of that in neighbourhoods like Tiger’s Bay and Glenbryn.

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In May 2003, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, postponed the Northern Ireland elections because it seemed likely that Paisley would emerge as the leader of unionism, and that Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin would emerge as the leader of nationalism. At that time Blair said anyone who thought a deal could be done with the DUP was talking ‘pie in the sky’. Last November, the elections brought about the result the British and Irish governments had dreaded.

Since then, the two governments have been talking up the DUP. Paisley, in his big white belted raincoat that still looks too small, has met the Taoiseach in London and the Republic’s minister for foreign affairs in Belfast. The old rhetoric is left behind on such occasions, replaced by the new euphemisms of the peace process. Paisley has even spoken about the need for IRA ‘acts of completion’.

Optimists make much of the perceived hunger for power in Robinson and the other fifty-somethings who are the DUP’s leaders in waiting. It was noted that they kept Paisley out of the political debates during last year’s election campaign, and that they talk of re-negotiating now instead of wrecking. Pragmatism will prevail, spokesmen for the two governments insist.

But for the party faithful, the talk is still of fire and blood, and Paisley still demands ‘the final death blow of Sinn Féin’. In his big Martyr’s Memorial church in Belfast, and others around Northern Ireland, Paisley continues to preach a fundamentalism which demands a kind of political apartheid. True faith is ‘free from compromise’, and St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a key text: ‘Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing.’ Unionism has defined itself by its struggle against the IRA. In Paisley’s terms, that means the ‘entire pan-nationalist front’, which is to say, Catholics.

In his poem ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, C.P. Cavafy describes the sense of order which prevails while the populace wait. There is no point in debating or legislating because the barbarians are on their way. Night falls, and they have not arrived. Word comes that there may not even be barbarians any longer. The poem ends: ‘Now what is going to happen to us without barbarians? / They were, those people, a kind of solution.’ Those who have followed Paisley have done so in fear of a dreadful enemy. Now that the IRA’s guns are largely silent, what does he have to offer? Billy Mitchell said Paisley only taught him to know what he was against. Does unionism know yet what it is for?

There is an inscription beneath the clock on the wall of the Martyr’s Memorial: ‘Time is short.’ Paisley knows that there are those who believe a new spirit in unionism can emerge only when he is gone. ‘They say I am dying,’ he said recently. ‘It takes a long time to die.’

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 15 Summer 2004