The legacy of a bigot

October 6, 2014

Unionist politician Ian Paisley may be dead, but his decades of fostering sectarianism and division in Northern Ireland will live on, writes Shaun Harkin.

WITH IAN Paisley's recent passing, much of the mainstream media's commentary talked up his so-called "transition" from a five-decade-plus career as an obstructionist Ulster Unionist politician and "firebrand" anti-Catholic preacher, into a "softened" Northern Irish "peacemaker." Even his former nemesis, Sinn Féin leader and former Irish Republican Army (IRA) chief of staff Martin McGuinness, corroborated this dignified transformation by saying he had lost a friend.

But although Paisley's violent sectarianism, damaging religious fundamentalism and campaign of intimidation against LGBT and abortion rights were minimized, they remain essential to the dangerous sectarian body politic of the "new" neoliberal Northern Ireland.

In 2006, Paisley said of Sinn Féin, "They are not fit to be in partnership with decent people. They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland, and it will be over our dead bodies if they ever get there." Yet, in 2007, with Paisley and his "Ulster Says Never" cohorts very much still alive, he agreed to join Sinn Féin in a power-sharing Northern Ireland executive. Paisley became first minister, and McGuinness first deputy.

Ian Paisley
Ian Paisley

For the political establishment responsible for engineering the "peace process" from even before the IRA's historic 1994 cease-fire, how the existing "peace" in Northern Ireland is broadly comprehended continues to matter a great deal. The perception that Paisley redeemed himself by joining with former enemies to overcome past hatreds fits very neatly with the narrative of the upward and forward "progress" being made in what was formerly a dark and depressing corner on the far edge of Europe.

Therefore, Paisley's death is an opportunity for the powers that be to remind us once again that there is peace in Northern Ireland. The conflict has been resolved, extremism was defeated, and Northern Ireland is becoming a "normal" place. They will remind us of the decisive role the big powers played in directing the parochially minded locals out of their ancient animosities toward the great ways of the modern world.

Even if they are forced to acknowledge its fragility, the U.S., British and Irish governments still tout the "peace" as a model for how they can resolve seemingly intractable conflicts in an increasingly uncertain world. Without a doubt, when Hillary Clinton eventually begins her campaign for president, she will reference her and Bill Clinton's critical involvement in bringing about an end to "centuries of bloodshed."

In comparison to the fiascos and disasters we have become used to in the Middle East and beyond, British and U.S. leaders can use the "peace" in Northern Ireland as a glittering example of what a successful intervention can look like.

The reality, however, is very different. Everything Paisley stood for and did in his miserable political life originated in the violence of the British state, which refused to give up an inch of the British empire, and from the noxious supremacist ideology it exhaled. The North of Ireland is still suffocated by the fumes of Britain's and Paisley's legacy.

The architects of division and war responsible for the atrocities of the past became the architects of the present peace, which is designed not to threaten the political and social order they're determined to preserve.

British Marxist John Newsinger described the 1998 Good Friday Agreement as the "reconstruction of bourgeois order in Northern Ireland." The eruption of rebellion in the late 1960s and the persistence of the political and social upheaval in the North had ended and ruled out the possibility of a return to the postwar arrangement of relatively stable British order and conditions for capital accumulation. The new arrangement, the peace Paisley belatedly embraced, is one aimed at restoring order and stability.

Devised by politicians in full accordance with neoliberal orthodoxy, it is a peace without the possibility of justice and equality and laced with the potential to unleash sectarian violence. Because the institutions of the peace agreement don't intend to deal with the state's violent origins, they can never be effective in eradicating sectarianism.

PAISLEY WAS born in 1926, in the northern County Armagh, six years after partition had been imposed on Ireland. His father was a Baptist minister, an Orange Order brethren and a member of Edward Carson's reactionary pro-British Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

Carson and the UVF threatened armed rebellion when Irish Home Rule was agreed upon by the British parliament and given "Royal Assent" in 1914. The eruption of the First World War allowed a duplicitous British government to suspend its actual implementation, setting the stage for the 1916 Easter Rising and the 1919-21 revolutionary War of Independence.

The origins of the newly formed Northern Ireland statelet were utterly reactionary. The British government manipulated Anglo-Irish treaty discussions and threatened all-out war unless its terms were accepted. The British military was the guarantor of the new northern state Ian Paisley would come to inhabit and passionately defend.

Pro-British and sectarian forces of "law and order" joined with loyalist vigilantes in burning Catholics out of their homes and intimidating thousands of Catholics along with "Rotten Prods" from their jobs. Despite having a large Catholic minority, this new state would be a "Protestant parliament for a Protestant people."

Nationalists and Catholics could live in this new house, but they would know their place. They would be second-class citizens and discriminated against in every possible aspect of existence--from employment to housing to gerrymandered election districts, and beyond. Unionists would completely dominate the 52-seat Stormont-based Parliament of Northern Ireland from its inception in 1921 to its suspension in 1972 when the British government felt pressured to impose direct rule from London and then abolish it in 1973.

Every summer on July 12, the date commemorating the victory of the Vatican-backed, but Protestant, Prince William of Orange over the Catholic James II for the British Crown, the Protestant supremacist Orange Order loudly marched through Catholic working-class neighborhoods to ensure them the threat of violence underpinned their guest status. The logic of the Orange Order, like other ultra-reactionary movements, was very straightforward: where we march, we rule.

They dehumanized Irish Catholics to justify their supremacy. Paisley said of Irish Catholics, "They breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin." For generations of Catholics and nationalists, Paisley embodied everything that was reactionary about Northern Ireland. This is what Paisley dedicated his life to preserving.

DURING THE 1960s, inspired by the Black struggle in the U.S., a new civil rights movement was beginning to challenge injustice in the "Orange state." Paisley incited violence against the emerging movement by giving hysterical voice to Protestant prejudices and insecurity. He riled up "grassroots" Loyalism by insisting that behind every attempt by Catholics to win equal rights lay a plot to establish a united Ireland where British Protestant culture would be usurped by the Pope operating through Irish Catholic priests from the Republic of Ireland.

Paisley also regularly targeted elements of the political establishment he said were selling out the Protestant people. In mid-1960s, Unionist Prime Minister Terence O'Neill attempted a rapprochement with the government of the Irish Republic. At this time, reactionary political establishments on both sides of the border were looking to engagement as a potential escape path from economic malaise and decline.

As the civil rights movement began to stir among Catholics in the North, O'Neill talked about the need to develop better "cross-community" relations. Catholics in the North weren't just subjects of colonized British territories, but "British citizens," supposedly with the same rights as people in London, Liverpool or Edinburgh. When he invited Irish Taoiseach Sean Lemass to Northern Ireland's Stormont parliament, Paisley organized loyalist protests and stoked reactionary outrage. This became the template for Paisley's politics for the next five decades.

Paisley looked suspiciously at any discussions involving the British and Irish governments and Northern Irish parties. He even condemned British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for her role in developing the failed 1985 Anglo-Irish power-sharing agreement.

Paisley's message was always a warning to the nationalists in the North and across Ireland and to British governments and Northern Irish political parties, including Unionists, that "the Protestant people" would be prepared to fight any betrayal. Betrayal meant any movement toward a united Ireland or one that diluted British and Protestant culture. Paisley's message was always "No Surrender" to the IRA/Sinn Féin and in favor of ever more aggressive military responses.

Paisley inspired and organized with loyalist paramilitary gangs, and his venom toward Catholics and nationalists promoted the message that all "taigs" were legitimate targets for torture and assassination.

Refusing to go along with the sanitized appreciation of Paisley, Tommy McKearney, a former hunger striker and author of The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament, writes:

There is an altogether admirable practice within the Ulster Presbyterian tradition of questioning and defying authority. Used progressively it has unseated tyrants. When misused or abused it is a dangerous concept that can give spurious legitimacy to bloody reaction.

The late Ian Paisley was one who abused this facet of Presbyterianism for reasons of self-aggrandizement. Throughout most of his political life he deemed every political opponent as lethal threats to be opposed, frequently by direct action. Unionist politicians were universally damned as traitors--Lundys in the vernacular--as he urged his followers relentlessly to remove them.

With a climate of crude hysteria created by Paisley and his endorsement of rowdy street protest and direct action (such as his occupation of Armagh city to prevent a civil rights demonstration) it is little wonder that Unionist death squads drew their own lesson. Nor was Ian Paisley entirely divorced from the unionist gunmen. Many members of the reformed UVF of the mid-1960s had close connections with Paisley's Free Presbyterian church. Later, in 1986, he was instrumental in forming Ulster Resistance which along with UVF and UDA, imported consignments of weapons from apartheid South Africa.

His late-in-life conversion to accommodation with opponents owed as much to his vanity being satisfied by promotion to top dog in the 6-County state as to anything else. What good he did at his life's end is entirely outweighed by the bloodshed for which he was responsible.

THE POLITICAL party Paisley founded in 1971, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), opposed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA). At the time, Paisley was mostly isolated in the sea of optimism and euphoria that greeted the peace settlement. But, as disillusion ate into the peace agreement, the DUP and Paisley were able to make political headway by playing, once again, on working-class Protestant fears and insecurities.

When Paisley and the DUP finally agreed to join the power-sharing administration in 2007, he achieved much of what he stood for. The IRA disarmed, dissolved and renounced political violence to end British rule and create a united Ireland. Sinn Féin leaders were committed to constitutional change and agreed Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom as long as long as there was a Unionist majority.

Sinn Féin agreed to uphold "law and order" and support the Northern Ireland police force and judicial system. Sinn Féin leaders have gone on to rationalize standing for "God Save the Queen" and joining "toasts" of Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle. Sinn Féin legitimized the notion that Orange Order marches somehow represent Protestant culture by accepting the concept of "parity of esteem."

And, Sinn Féin came in from the cold in one other essential way--by joining their political counterparts in accepting and promoting, despite whatever rhetoric they continue to employ, Northern Ireland and its workforce as a very good place for neoliberal corporate investment. This is the economic glue holding Unionists, Republicans and Nationalists together with the British, U.S. and Irish governments. All this made the status quo safe, and safe for Paisley to come in from the cold as well.

Nevertheless, while the British state never came to face a humiliating defeat by the IRA, the Unionist monolith epitomized by Paisley's intransigence has been shattered. Ideologically, Unionism worked to bind Protestant workers and Protestant employers with a shared sense of superiority, sacrifice and history. Materially, Protestant workers could expect whatever decent jobs and opportunities were available ahead of Catholics.

When Catholics and Protestants overcame sectarian division to fight for common class demands, the Unionist establishment and employers played the "Orange card" to undercut struggle. Today, however, the material basis for Unionism has been ruptured by the decline of the British empire, deindustrialization and neoliberal capitalist globalization. As Sean Mitchell argues in his excellent analysis in the Irish Marxist Review, Ulster Unionism has fragmented and faces permanent crisis.

Unionism no longer delivers any perceived benefit to Protestant workers and was always designed to keep them in their place. Nevertheless, its poisonous ideas remain dangerously influential in a context of growing disillusionment with the benefits of the so-called peace process. Today, Paisley's legacy breathes life into sectarian hatred among Catholics and Protestants, racist attacks on immigrants and Muslims, and support for British and U.S.-backed war efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Northern Ireland remains a highly sectarian society. "Peace walls" separate Catholic and Protestant working-class neighborhoods throughout Belfast, education remains highly segregated, and central to this dynamic is the power-sharing political arrangement that naturalizes rather than challenges rigid sectarian divisions. The logic of sectarianism is reinforced by political parties who are officially assigned to represent their "communities" against the other.

For decades, Catholics felt alienated by the Northern Irish state. Today, the concept of working-class "Protestant alienation" has become a widely discussed theme, but it is the product of poverty, austerity and the lack of opportunities.

However, the sectarian logic encourages working-class Protestants to see this as the outcome of Catholics receiving the benefits of the peace process. Politicians like Paisley bear full responsibility for this, and it's in this way the sectarian state perpetuates itself. In working-class Protestant neighborhoods, paramilitaries cynically promote the notion that mainstream Unionist politicians have sold them out to poverty and Sinn Féin.

THE REACTIONARY Orange state Paisley fought to preserve is now gone, but it has been replaced with a sectarian neoliberal state presenting no threat to the status quo. Indeed, the "new" Northern Ireland political arrangement is the means by which austerity can be implemented and where both privatization and commodification of society can be furthered.

In the article "Northern Ireland: The privatization of peace," Goretti Horgan describes how under the radar of the peace agreement consecutive governments have used it as a vehicle to stimulate neoliberal driven economic growth and undercut the public sector. A process that creates increased wealth but also increased levels of poverty.

Therefore, sectarianism isn't, like Ian Paisley, simply a historical relic in the process of dying out as the peace agreement processes play forward. For neoliberal capitalism to succeed in effectively integrating the North of Ireland economy into international circuits of capital sectarian divisions must be perpetuated and sustained.

This is where the hypocrisy of the general neoliberal promise to overcome divisions through globalization, and the specific Northern Irish peace agreement promise to overcome divisions among working-class Catholics and Protestants, meet.

A society where poverty, inequality and bigotry are widespread can never claim to be "normal." Northern Ireland is not a normal country. Working-class Catholics, Protestants and "Other" have nothing to lose in confronting the sectarianism, racism and austerity that constitute the evolving neoliberal order. In this fight, they owe Ian Paisley nothing, and he has absolutely nothing to offer.

Further Reading

From the archives