Diarmuid Breatnach

Ian Paisley speaking outdoors
Ian Paisley addressing an outdoor meeting in typical style


Ian Paisley died on 12th September, five days ago. Much of the mass media portrayed him a man who participated in building peace in the Six Counties. Some of the media painted a different picture or, at least, permitted a different telling of his story. I have searched for but failed to find a photo I remember from decades ago, in the early days of the campaign for civil rights for Catholics in that sectarian colonial statelet, a photo of Ian Paisley and Ronald Bunting standing side by side. In Bunting’s right hand was a pick-axe handle. It was around the time of the Burntollet Ambush of Civil Rights campaigners (who were marched into it by the good old RUC, nowadays the Police Service of Northern Ireland). At Burntollet, the B-Specials and civilian Loyalists had pickaxe handles too, and rocks as well.

Burntollet Loyalists & RUC
Loyalists waiting to attack Civil Rights marchers at Burntollet Bridge mingle with RUC, January 1969.
Burntollet Loyalists, RUC, marchers
Civil Rights marchers duck from hail of missiles while RUC stand by. Note clubs also wielded by Loyalists, many of them also police reservists.










In an interview around that time, side by side with Ronald Bunting, Paisley made much of how law-abiding they and their crowd were. They could afford to be, since the statelet’s laws gave it enormous powers which nullified every civil right the large Catholic minority might try to use. But illegal violence was never far from the weapons of the State and its Loyalist supporters, to which the imperial master usually turned a blind eye (as it had to the landing of weapons in 1914, including 30.000 assorted rifles with ammunition at Larne and Donaghdee for the Ulster Volunteer Force).  Nevertheless, Ian spouted in public about law and order – an old trick of fascists who have their armed thugs already breaking the law … and arms and legs too.

Not long after, Paisley and Bunting went to jail for breaking the law, as the statelet’s rulers strove to control them and also to show the world how “fair” and “even-handed” they were. Unfortunately for them at that time, the world had already seen and was to see more of it – and it was not a pretty picture.

An ex-British Army Major, Bunting had his own paramilitary unit and though he was somewhat sidelined later for a decade, who knows where he might have ended were it not for the 1980 murder of his son, Ronnie, who had joined the Official IRA and later the Irish National Liberation Army. Ronnie was murdered by SAS or Loyalists  and after that, the grieving father dropped completely out of politics.

Paisley broke away from his Unionist Party because he could not rise high enough in it, could not control it and so he created his own party, the Democratic Unionist Party. He broke away from his Presbyterian Church for the same reason and created his own, making himself a vicar and Moderator of it. He never joined the Orange Order, perhaps because he did not wish to be answerable to it. When Bernadette (Devlin) McAlliskey warned people not to fear the DUP but rather the Official Unionist Party (so named to distinguish it from other unionist parties), because the former represented the real colonial power in the Six Counties, she could not have anticipated that Paisley would adapt, outflank the Official Unionists and gather the support of the old colonial class and their imperial masters. (As an aside, it’s a curious fact that in Ireland, calling one’s party the “Official” version, is to invite outflanking and eventual marginalisation).

Paisley was a skilfull demagogue and those who, in Britain or in the 26 Counties, laughed at him and his rabid roaring oratory, underestimated him. For he was not talking to them, even when giving an interview on TV, but to his own die-hard Loyalist audience. And most of them loved “Big Ian” or “Bigyan”, even if some of the paramilitary leaders thought at times that he was trying to manipulate them for his own ends (for example, during the Ulster Workers’ Strike of 1974) .

But when different times called for a different act, a different Ian emerged. A man of many smiles, a man who could go back on most of what he had said to his troops when he felt the time was right, a man who could play his part in the newest game of the British Empire in their colony, that of power-sharing with Provisional Sinn Féin, just as the latter’s leadership too adjusted to play the new game, now “the only game in town” for them.

Paisley was a fundamentalist Protestant from the ranks of the “Dissenter” churches, those who opposed the established Anglican church of the imperial state and many of whom had in 1798 taken arms against that state for Irish independence. But those dissenting churches had by now been purged and were loyal servants of the Empire, though still dissenters in religion. Echoing the old Loyalist slogan from the early years of the last century that “Home Rule is Rome rule”, Paisley fulminated against any involvement in Six County affairs by the 26 County “Free State” and also ranted against the Catholic Pope, “the Scarlet Harlot”.

Those who rightly condemn the Catholic Church’s control of the Irish state often forget that the Six County state was as fundamentalist and restrictive in most things. Divorce was already party of UK law when Ireland was partitioned and was incorporated into the new statelet. Contraception was later permitted under UK legislation and entered the Six Counties largely without problem. But they drew the line at gay rights, even after the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised sexual acts between consenting males of 21 years of age or over in England and Wales (lowered to 18 years of age only in 1994 and to 16, equally with heterosexuals in 2000). Scotland, another stronghold of fundamentalist Presbyterianism, took another 13 years to pass the same legislation. It did not become law until 1982 in the Six Counties, with Paisley leading the “Save Ulster from Sodomy” campaign against it. Sadly, another eleven years had to pass before similar legislation was passed in the 26 Counties. Abortion, although legal in Britain is still not legal in either part of Ireland.

It was said by many that as a parliamentary representative, Paisley was effective and represented his Catholic constituents on an individual basis equally with his Protestant ones. He also represented a Protestant constituent against the British Army and RUC. The man in question had confronted men with long hair, dressed in combat jackets and jeans and stealing a neighbour’s car. Later in the police station, he saw the same men, some without their long-haired wigs and heard them speaking in English accents, apparently on good terms with the police. The witness made an issue to the RUC of what he assumed to be a British Army undercover squad stealing a car in order to carry out some nefarious act. Some time after that a door in the man’s street was shot at, the door number of which was the reverse of his own. Whether it was a warning or a confused murder attempt is not clear but Paisley came out with a public statement, presumably to make sure the man stayed alive.

Paisley was a sectarian, authoritarian, homophobic bigot, a bully, a fundamentalist Christian, a servant of the colonial statelet masters and in turn of their British imperialist masters. The fact that he proved more adroit than most of his opponents had given him credit for changes none of that. It is entirely appropriate that he should have received an emotional tribute from Martin McGuinness, senior figure in Sinn Féin and Deputy First Minister of the colonial administration he had shared with Paisley, when the latter was First Minister. Martin McGuinness is also a man who has been different things to different men at different times, a man who has lied and also contradicted himself in public without shame or apology. Both got on so well together, at least in public, that they soon came to be described in terms of a British comedy act, as “the Chuckle Brothers”.




Video footage of interview with Paisley and Bunting about their opposition to a Civil Rights march in the early days of the campaign

Paisley and Bunting released from jail:

Ronal Bunting:

“Never a man of peace” — article in The Scotsman: (NB: I do not agree with all that is in this article but certainly do with the main thrust of it and the headline — DB)

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