One MP who won’t be going back to Westminster is the Reverend Paisley.
A month off his eighty-fourth birthday, Ian Paisley announced his impending retirement as the Member of Parliament for North Antrim in the British House of Commons. If he has not retired a very rich man he must have been exceedingly profligate for during much of his political career he was one of Europe’s biggest political earners on salary and expenses simultaneously from the European Parliament, the British Parliament, the various Northern Ireland Assemblies. Additionally, of course, he had invented the Free Presbyterian route to heaven, incorporated it into an established religion catering for anti-Papist bigotry where he enjoyed the paradoxical role of ‘Moderator’.
For Paisley it has been a Rags-to-Riches career but whereas some parents leave their children riches in the form of money or property, the wealth that Paisley inherited was of a different coin. It was the vulgar, religious fundamentalism of both his parents. Ironically, in a place where history has injected religious bigotry deep into the culture of the working class it was an inheritance with the potential to be as good as gold
In the late 1950’s and early sixties Ian Kyle Paisley surfaced in the media breathing fire and brimstone, proclaiming the Pope to be the anti-Christ and distilling a malignant politico-religious gospel of separateness and division. For most his bellowing exhortations made him a figure of fun, a religious clown; but the media which would have ignored him if he had been talking sense gave him space and Paisley had an acknowledged genius for manipulating the clever dicks of the press.
His behaviour was so outrageous his bellowed vapourings about ‘old red socks’ – Paisley humour for the Chief Executive Officer of the Catholic Church – were absurd and his buffoonery initially embarrassed middle class and aspiring middle-class Protestants. But in the acres of Protestant slumdom, where the ruling Unionist leadership spoke the same bigotry at election times, Paisley’s taunts about the Unionist aristocracy – the Party leaders who then lived in the sort of house that Paisley now lives in – were being heard.
The basis of division
The captains of Ulster industry in the early decades of the 20th century had reacted violently to the idea of their political incorporation in an all-Ireland state where the IRA’s political arm, Sinn Fein, proclaimed the ‘first duty’ of the state to be the build up of native capitalism behind tariff walls and import quotas. Such a policy would have been ruinous to the well-developed industrial capitalism of the north that had effectively been nurtured within the political structure of British capitalism and remained dependant for its market on what was then called Empire Preference.
This was the core issue that had created division between the two parts of Ireland. Ulster capitalism had developed with British capitalism after the Industrial Revolution, Throughout the rest of the country economic development had been inhibited by an especially restrictive type of landlordism. When a native bourgeoisie did emerge in the latter part of the 19th century its political demand, articulated first by the Irish Parliamentary Party and later by Sinn Fein, was the legislative freedom to protect its fledgling capitalism from, in the words of Sinn Fein ’English and other foreign capitalists’.
The issue was a conflict of interests between the Ulster capitalists and their market requirements and a burgeoning southern capitalism but, inevitably, it was the working class that provided the foot soldiers and took the casualties. So truth and lies were mulled in a vile concoction of hatred to motivate the troops.
One side of that vile concoction represented Ian Paisley’s knowledge of history which he welded onto a particularly virulent brand of religious fundamentalism as a tribal battle cry. It was not a new weapon; Lord Randolph Churchhill, Edward Carson, Lord Craigavon and their political ilk had used it successfully.
But these were new times. The British Government had made known to the Unionist government its embarrassment when the architect of South Africa’s Apartheid laws, Hendryk Frensch Verwoerd, responded to British government criticism by saying he would give up his restrictive legislation in exchange for the British tolerated Northern Ireland "Special Powers Act" .
Paisley probably saw this as a compliment but in the higher echelons of Unionism religious sectarianism was becoming considerably less strident. The effects of the 1966 Anglo-Irish Trade Agreement, the post-war decline of heavy industry – severely felt in Northern Ireland – and the enticements of the impending European Union were reflected in a diminution of the old bigotries. Elements in the governing Unionist Party, like the Prime Minister, the aristocratic Captain O’Neill, were less inclined to don the gutter raiment of sectarian politics. But that gutter and its political opportunities were still there and gutter politics was a Paisley speciality.
The easing of the political climate between the two Governments in Ireland became manifest when Captain O’Neill invited his southern counterpart, Sean Lemass, to visit Stormont. However, the delicacy of the rapprochement was pointed up by the fact that O’Neill’s cabinet colleagues were not told about it beforehand,
Paisley got word of the impending visit, probably from elements within the police, and when Lemass’s car arrived at Stormont he attacked it – with snowballs! That was the evening’s main item of news!
He seemed impervious to embarrassment. On one occasion the courageous Methodist preacher, Dr Donald Soper, addressed an outdoor meeting in Northern Ireland. Paisley attended and threw a Bible at him. Soper, a graduate of Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park complimented Paisley for keeping his hat on as a protection against roving woodpeckers!
Border campaign and IRA surrender
In 1956 the, then, Leninist-influenced IRA, under pressure from a new republican terrorist aspirant in Ulster, commenced a ‘Border’ campaign in a blaze of glory. IRA personnel raided a British Army barracks in Armagh and removed a substantial quantity of military ordinance under the noses of careless squaddies. It was the IRA’s single victory in a desultory, attritional saga which continued until 1962
The end was inglorious and remarkable: the IRA virtually surrendered; it called the failure of the nationalist population to give it support ‘selling its heritage for a mesh of pottage’ – a reference to British ’welfare’ capitalism – and announced the further pursuit of its aims by constitutional means. It should have been a momentous occasion for Ireland. Finally, after decades of intermittent warfare the gun was being removed from politics.
The IRA, pursuant of its undertaking to become a constitutional political organisation, established Republican Clubs pledged to fight constitutionally for universal suffrage in local government elections, as well as an end to gerrymandering of local government ward boundaries and religious discrimination in employment and housing.
Unionist control of an area of Ulster politically tailored to ensure that Protestant hegemony would be permanent in the new state of Northern Ireland had been established by the threat of terrorist violence in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Unionist overlords like Lord Craigavon and his political playmates at Stormont showed a contempt for the working class irrespective of its religious identity. When protests about social conditions could be labelled ‘Catholic’ they were disregarded; if similar protests emanated from a ’Protestant’ source it was countered by the argument that the protesters were disloyal and were playing into the hands of the IRA.
The government could handle the insignificant military threat of the IRA. It had the largely Protestant paramilitary police backed-up by the ’B’ Specials, an armed Protestant militia. What it couldn’t handle was any rational defence of its social deficiencies, its sectarian discrimination and its draconian laws. Without the threat of the IRA political debate could prove dangerous. The government’s unstable Minister of Home Affairs responded to this new democratic challenge; he simply banned the Republican Clubs making them an illegal organisation.
But whereas there had been an insignificant response to the IRA’s Border campaign from within the northern nationalist community the campaign for Civil Rights found a ready response not only among nationalists but including the broad Left. O’Neill’s attitude was conciliatory but he was a prisoner of reaction within and without his own Party and the most violent opposition to the demands for elementary democratic rights was orchestrated by Paisley and his cohorts who have the effrontery to pose as ‘Democratic’ Unionists.
In the fashion of the movement for black liberation in the US, the chosen weapon of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was the organisation of protest marches. Similarly, like the Ku Klux Klan and race bigots in the US, Paisley and his fellow bigots used the tactic of the counter-demonstration and the Home Affairs minister banned or restricted Civil Rights’ demonstrations ‘to prevent civil disturbance’.
But, of course, there was civil disturbance; the Civil Rights people could not allow themselves to be neutered by the threats and the violence of Paisley, the mob or the clearly partial brutality of the police. Television brought its graphic pictures of violence to the capitals of the world; Paisley’s violent ranting became a media export without embarrassment to him or his followers, and it was becoming incumbent on external agencies to ‘do something’ about Northern Ireland.
Almost single-handedly Paisley had let the genie of sectarian violence out of the bottle and, Ironically, created the material conditions for the re-emergence of the IRA, this time supported by the people who had previously rejected it and its political objective and who now saw it as a weapon of Catholic defence against loyalist pogroms.
A Pyrrhic victory
Northern Ireland is governed today by a coalition of political parties organised within the D’Hondt system effectively devised to provide for norms of compromise within a power-sharing system. Effectively, however, power resides in the coalesced numbers of what was Paisley’s DUP and the IRA’s political arm, Sinn Fein. under the compulsion of the failure of each to achieve its primary purpose.
Together they stand as a memorial to the decades of violence they visited on the people; together – the cowards loading the guns and the fools firing them – they gave us the thousands of corpses, the tens of thousands of maimed. Together they built the ‘Peace’ walls and the ghettoes where the coloured rags of opposing tribal identities mark brands of hatred and yesterday’s foot soldiers draw their dole and envy the trappings of power which their leaders now share with their erstwhile enemies
For the socialist, Northern Ireland makes a good case study for those promulgating the notion that political violence is the ultimate weapon in the struggle for socialism; that ‘revolutionary situations’ can be created out of the political chaos of capitalism. But working class consensus, not division, must be the foundation of a socialist society in which the dynamic is human co-operation. Traditionally, socialists have responded to those who cite minority violence as a possible reaction to the achievement of socialism by saying ‘peacefully if we may; forcefully if we must’ . When we see the aftermath of political violence we must fervently hope that we never ‘must’.