In 1948 a workmate of mine who had been at school with Ian Paisley told me about a fanatical preacher of the Free Presbyterian Church who had been associated with the separation of a young girl from her Catholic parents who intended to become big in Northern Ireland affairs.
Some years later in 1966 on a visit to my native Belfast there were press reports of the activities of the same preacher as head of his own Free Presbyterian Church and his followers. They were demonstrating against a procession by the Moderator and other members of the established Presbyterian Church to their Assembly Buildings in in Belfast’s city centre during which they were spat upon by the protesters.
There are many instances, including that an Buntullet, where civil rights marchers were subject to savage attacks, mentored by this turbulent cleric over four decades inextricably linked to his politico/religious outpourings, well authenticated, which should give us much pause as he commenced his office as First Minister on 8th May.
His Democratic Unionist Party opted out of the negotiations which produced the Good Friday Agreement on 10th April 1998 which he and his companions campaigned against in the referendum which ratified it in the six Counties by a 70% Yes vote. The Agreement was also approved a 90% Yes vote in a referendum in the Irish Republic which also approved changes to its 1937 constitution to accommodate its acceptance.
This I welcomed with reservations as a huge step forward because it had been negotiated by the principals of all political parties in both communities except for the self‑excluded DUP.
Although some of the party’s members accepted posts in the various administrations set up to implement the agreement they prevaricated and obstructed, inside and outside. The peace process faltered and fumbled as was much reported and documented over nine years making direct rule again inevitable (Wales and Scotland take note...).
Over the years prior to and since 1998 I have written on the issues and on what might or should be done to provide an alternative to violence and intransigence and to establish equality of treatment and electoral arrangements which in justice would satisfy the minority community so that they were no longer a second class and discriminated against section of society.
The opposition from the DUP and the defections to it from David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party as well as the delays and suspensions of the Assembly culminated in the meeting at St. Andrews, Scotland, in late 2006. Changes were made there which satisfied the two largest parties to be elected to the Assembly in March 2007 and laid the basis for the recent return to devolved government.
The main change at St. Andrews was in the method of appointment of the First And Deputy First Minister. They were to be elected, not by the Assembly itself, but by the parties with the highest and second highest number of elected members, the DUP and Sinn Féin respectively. This is not, of course, the practice or procedure in Scotland and Wales.
Call me a cynic if you like, but in my view it was Paisley’s personal ambition for over fifty years to become Big in Northern Ireland. It was his belief that only he could be relied upon to keep Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom as well as a thirst for power that were at the core of his opposition to the Belfast Agreement and his wish to prevent anyone else from succeeding in establishing peace and progress. After dismissing all others in the Unionist community as ‘Lundies’ how does he look now in the light of his own past utterances?
However, we are where we are and as Paisley himself said as he took office on May 8th, he is still firmly for the union although he now accepts that Nationalists and Republicans have the legitimate right to pursue their aspirations, democratically and peacefully, for a united Ireland.
It is significant that the Pledge of Office which ministers and members have to affirm, but not swear, is to the effect that the Assembly is to operate within the terms of the Good Friday 1998 Agreement as amended, that they must eschew violence and support the rule of law. It is not an oath of loyalty to the Crown which Unionists would prefer and which was the case in the old Stormont pre‑1971 and which is at the core of Sinn FéinŐs abstentionist policy at Westminster.
In his acceptance speech following his affirmation Paisley referred to the long years of conflict and loss of life and the fact that if he had been told some time ago that he would be standing there with Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister he would not have believed that such a thing was possible. His previous view of himself may have changed – or has it?
He went on to the Bible, quoting from King Solomon who had said, “There was a time to be born and a time to die, a time for war and a time for peace...”. We had reached the time for peace. It was a time for all to, as he would, work for all the people of Northern Ireland. As Sinn Féin had now shown their commitment to democracy and peaceful progress he was sure that Martin McGuinness and he himself could work together to that end.
Martin McGuinness, having also affirmed to the detailed terms of the Pledge of Office, said that he paid credit to Paisley for having come to terms with the situation and had met Sinn Féin in working out the programme for government. He recognised that the DUP leader was still attached to Unionism and the Union but reiterated that as a Republican he and his colleagues were still committed to the unification of Ireland.
He and they had pledged themselves to work for the improvement of the public services, education, health and the economy. There was a good relationship between Ian Paisley and himself. They understood each other’s position. They could, he was sure, work well together in dealing with the practical issues affecting the lives of all the people. He wished Ian Paisley well.
He paid tribute to the part Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, for the way they had worked over the years, as Paisley had done, to extend and develop the peace process and to bring about the restoration of devolved government.
Tony Blair welcomed the beginning of the new beginning and gave his appreciation of the way the the different parties had approached the issues and expressed his gratitude for the active participation of the Taoiseach and the help he had given in the process.
The Taoiseach gave a warm response and paid his own tribute to the patience and understanding shown by Tony Blair in respect of the problems of coming to terms with the history of relationships within and between the peoples of both islands.
So history was made and a new beginning begun. A dark, dangerous and difficult period needs to be put aside and new and old problems have to be tacked and solved by mutual agreement.
It is of course a tall order, but the past must not be allowed to obstruct or interfere with reconstruction and reconciliation.
There is an old saying, “You cannot bathe in the same river twice”, which is of course very true in politics and in the affairs of Northern Ireland. This should have been evident to Ian Paisley as he visited the river Boyne along with the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. From the Taoiseach he received a present of an ancient musket circa 1690. It was of a type which was probably in use in that site’s battle (12 July 1690) between the forces of James the Second and William of Orange. Both armies included many mercenaries, not necessarily indigenous to either England or Ireland.
I recall, many years ago, a picture of that event in the Stormont parliament building being vandalised with red paint. That was because of the fact, much disputed by Orangemen, that a cross in the picture of the Prince of Orange crossing the Boyne was to represent the Pope of the time who supported the Dutch claimant to the English throne. The Orange Order finds it hard to accept that the conflict was mixed up with the dispute between the French king and the Vatican. The Pope supported the Williamite forces because the French supported James’s claim to the English throne.
So although the Boyne may remain an icon in the Orange Pantheon it is simply, as far as the people in the Republic are concerned, just another river. But they are prepared to recognise and put it into a slot of history and provide a museum to display some artefacts found around the site.
The divide between the two communities can only be overcome eventually and the ‘peace walls’, so called, taken down in Belfast by jointly dealing on the basis of equality with the economic and social problems.
The political alndscape is no more able to resist change than than a river. There is a new Prime Minister in the making in the Westminster Parliament. The results of the Scottish Parliament election are inconclusive as were those of the Welsh Assembly. The general election is in progress with predictions of change in the Irish Republic. There has been a new President elected in France and impending parliamentary elections ther also. The President of the USA is in his last years of office.
New relationships will have to be forged which may to some extent impinge on the decisions in the ‘Joint Northern Executive’.
The path will be rocky and very fractious at time. Water may flow or not flow but hopefully we will have made the journey from blood letting to blood brothers and erect bridges rather than barricades.