The Real History of Paisley?

Posted By: January 16, 2014

The Belfast commentator takes a hard look at the “real” history of  Ian Paisley


Newton Emerson. Irish News ( Belfast). Thursday, January 16, 2014

EAMONN Mallie was not making a historical documentary and Ian Paisley was certainly not engaged in a truth recovery process but their BBc programme, Paisley: Genesis to Revelation, presented a myth of Paisley’s rise to power that must be corrected. According to this myth, which is in danger of becoming accepted fact, Paisley was an outsider and mere rabble-rousing street preacher who harassed a tentatively reforming UUP throughout the 1960s before, in Mallie’s words, “forming his own political party, the DUP”, in 1971.

Paisley added that it was not until the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 that he could “for the first time sit in company with Llster Unionists who saw the same way as I was seeing”.

The facts tell another story. Paisley first sat down with like-minded ulster unionists in 1956 when he was invited to the inaugural meeting of Ulster Protestant Action (UPA), a vigilante group created in response to the iRA’s border campaign.

The meeting took place in the UUP’s Glengall Street headquarters, with senior UUP figures in attendance.

Gusty Spence, who would later found the modern UVF, was also present. UPA rapidly became a political vehicle for UUP hardliners to undermine moderate colleagues. It ran a candidate in the 1958 Stormont election against Brian Maginess, who had banned Orange Order marches while minister for home affairs. That same year UPA succeeded in getting two councillors elected in Belfast under its own ticket. Another founding member of UPA, Desmond Boal, was elected to Stormont in 1960 under a UUP ticket, reflecting the party’s tolerance of the para-political cuckoo in its nest.

Meanwhile, Paisley was becoming the cuckoo in UPA’s nest. His two most notorious acts of this period, reading out the addresses of Catholic residents on the Shankill to a mob in 1959 and in 1964 demanding the RUC remove a Tricolour[ Irish Flag] from Republican Party offices in Divis Street, were undertaken through UPA as stunts to seize control.

He formed a ‘premier’ branch of UPA to sideline rivals , and in 1966 reconstituted this branch as the Protestant Unionist Party (the first PUP), taking it officially outside the UUP, to which it had never ‘officially’ belonged.

As befits a party of this nature, the PUP had a military wing. The Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV) was led by Noel Doherty, another attendee at the Glengall Street meeting. Doherty and Paisley set up the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee to keep the political and military wings at one remove while keeping a channel open to Spence’s UVF, much to Spence’s later regret. UPV detonated the first bombs of the Troubles in 1966 with the intention of blaming republicans.

There was a similarly careful link between the PUP and the Orange Defence Committee, which coordinated opposition to UUP moderates from within the Orange Order.

Far from being a new party in 1971, the DUP was just a reconstitution of the PUP, with Paisley and Boal as joint founders. Rather than the creation of an outsider, it was the result of years of faction-fighting and cynical ambition inside unionist politics.

The myth of Paisley as the anti-establishment preacher stirring chaos from the margins fosters the perception that he was a random, external shock to a vulnerable system, instead of an intrinsic feature of the system.

Academics call these shocks ‘black swans’ but a closer look at Paisley’s career places him among a large flock of Orange ugly ducklings, which the UUP was trying and failing to keep in a row. Paisley remains personally responsible for his actions but if he had never lived, to continue the avian metaphor, someone like him would probably still have emerged to cook Unionism’s goose. There would just have been less shouting about Jesus and the Pope.

The danger of the Paisley myth is that we will repeat the past he has such trouble recalling. Paisley was invited to the Glengall Street meeting because of his membership of the National Union of Protestants, a tiny fundamentalist pressure group that most people regarded as bonkers, if they had heard of it at all.

By opening the door to one obscure but cunning young extremist, a party too weak on extremism to push him out again set off a chain of events that led inexorably to disaster.

Today, amid occasional moderate noises, the DUP consults flag protesters on the Haass talks, invites Orange Order hardliners to negotiate in its name and lets UVF flute-bands steer its entire political direction. How long before it creates the next Rev Ian Paisley?