By Simon Basketter
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Ian Paisley: good riddance to a vile bigot

This article is over 9 years, 7 months old
Issue 2420
Ian Paisley in 2001

Ian Paisley in 2001 (Pic: Rusty Stewart/flikr)

One of the vilest bigots these islands have produced is dead.

Ian Paisley was finally killed off by the prospect of the break up of the union next week.

Paisley lived long enough to become respectable to the establishment—but he never stopped being poisonous.

Northern Ireland was set up by the British government as a society based on discrimination against Catholics. Bigotry is at its core. But bigotry needs stoking—and Paisley built his career doing just that.

Ian Paisley hated many things. He hated gay people, and launched a campaign called “Save Ulster from Sodomy”. He even hated line dancing, which he called “sinful” because it “clearly caters to the lust of the flesh”.

But Ian Paisley was far more dangerous than he was ridiculous—because what he hated most of all was Catholics.

He founded his own church, the Free Presbyterian, in 1951 because the existing Protestant churches in Northern Ireland didn’t hate Catholics enough. And he set up his own political party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), in 1971 because the Ulster Unionist Party didn’t hate Catholics enough.

He put his views on Catholics simply. “They breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin,” he said.

He proudly justified the burning of Catholic homes and churches at the start of the Troubles in the late 1960s.

After loyalist mobs had burnt out hundreds of Catholic families, he announced at a rally that “Catholic homes caught fire because they were loaded with petrol  bombs” and “Catholic churches were attacked and burned because they were  arsenals and priests handed out sub-machine guns to parishioners.”

Time and time again, Paisley called a march or rally to set loyalist paramilitaries on their way. He would then step back from the ensuing slaughter just far enough to maintain his “respectability”.

This “man of god”, who got his honorary doctorate in divinity bestowed upon him by the racist Bob Jones University, repeatedly launched paramilitary organisations.

His first foray into the world of politics was to go to a secret meeting that set up a paramilitary group called Ulster Protestant Action. In the 1960s he set up Ulster Protestant Volunteers, another paramilitary-style organisation.

As Catholics and their supporters began to march for civil rights, Paisley organised violent counter-demonstrations. Thugs repeatedly attacked protesters.

But the protesters were not deterred.

After 50 years of Unionist domination and discrimination, it became clear that the rotten administration could no longer rule in the old way in the face of the movement for civil rights on the streets.

So, at the beginning of 1974, a new Northern Ireland executive was set up, including Unionists and members of the middle class Catholic party, the SDLP. But Paisley threw himself into bringing down this short-lived power-sharing administration. A strike by by the sectarian Ulster Workers’ Council succeeded in ending power sharing.

He tried the same trick again in 1977—but this time he failed after workers in key workplaces voted to defy loyalist paramilitaries and not strike.

In 1981 Paisley launched another group, “Third Force”. He led a group of 500 men up a hillside in County Antrim at night, where they were photographed holding firearms certificates above their heads. They were showing that they could easily have been holding weapons.

The same year, in front of 6,000 men carrying clubs, Paisley announced, “Here are men willing to do the job of exterminating the IRA. Recruit under the Crown and they will do it.”

“If you refuse,” he added, “we will have no other decision to make but to do it ourselves.”

The British establishment knew all about Paisley’s links to paramilitaries.

Secret government minutes say that “there were certain elements in the police who were very close to the UVF [Ulster Volunteer Force, the latest paramilitary group] and who were prepared to hand over information, for example, to Mr Paisley.”

Yet the truth is that Paisley was always allowed to be part of the mainstream.

In 1995, hand in hand with official Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, he danced a jig down the predominantly Catholic Garvaghy Road at the head of an Orange march.

Loyalist paramilitaries combined with the police and official Unionist politicians to force this Protestant supremacist parade down the road.

Paisley’s electoral success was based on providing certainty. That gave him with a solid political base, even if his personal support was mostly rural.

When the DUP built support in working class Protestant areas, it was through other members of his party.

Sectarian bigotry is a poison in the Protestant working class of Northern Ireland. But Paisley’s particular brand of it was suited to those whose fear of god was almost equal to their hatred of Catholics.

The fate of the Protestant workers is symbolised by Harland and Wolff, the shipyard whose cranes towered over Belfast. It once employed 35,000 people, offering the prospect of skilled work.

Today it is a theme park known as the Titanic Quarter. The assumption that loyalty to the Queen and Britain meant a better life lay shattered.

So when Paisley denounced trade union led peace marches in 1993, tens of thousands of Protestant workers ignored him and marched.

Yet the DUP was still able to become the dominant Unionist party by bitterly criticising other Unionists’ involvement in the “peace process”.

This was a deliberate strategy to supplant the marginally more moderate Ulster Unionists. As soon as the opportunity to be first minister in Northern Ireland arose, Paisley took it.

Today’s Northern Ireland assembly is based on continuing sectarianism. The once-radical Republican party Sinn Fein accepts that this divide cannot be eroded. That’s why it embraced coalition with Paisley.

That the peace process ended up with Paisley as First Minister tells you more about the peace process that than it does about any conversion to peace of Paisley’s.

I came into contact with Paisley myself, just the once. He was protesting outside the Brook Advisory Clinic in the 1990s.

The sexual health clinic’s very existence had managed to unite bigots of all faiths in opposition to it. However, Protestant bigots and Catholic bigots did not protest at the same time—that would be too much. Instead, Paisley was waiting for his turn.

Since it is traditional in an obituary to say something nice, as it turns out Paisley was as bilious and hate-filled in the flesh as in reputation.

The world is a better place without him.

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