Thursday 22 May 2008

Paisley's legacy?

He is not dead yet, but his career is over, and it won't be long until he meets his maker (so he thinks, anyway). In order to beat the rush, this blog would like to publish its obituary now, so that we can ignore his death when it comes.

Unfortunately, when he dies Ian Paisley is going to receive a full broadside of hypocritical sycophantic 'great man' obituaries – the few voices that dissent will be drowned in a deluge of syrup. We'll be told how he was a man of God, a loving husband and father, a great leader, a peacemaker, a sturdy Ulsterman, and gallons of other such tripe.

This blog has no intention of critically examining the man or his 'achievements', and still less intention of trying to build him up to something that he wasn't. He was a nasty bigot with medieval views and a loud voice. He was a bully, a hypocrite, a fomenter of hatred and violence. He was a divider, a sectarian, and a deliberate exploiter of other men's foolishness. He knowingly stirred up enmities old and new, and led men in directions that he knew to be dangerous, un-Christian and violent. The blood of many people is on his hands, and countless lives were impoverished by those who followed his words and deeds. He lit fires where he knew the tinder was dry, and he cared little for those who got burned.

And yet, in some strange way, his extremism and the sheer outlandishness of his views and his actions may well have a counter-intuitive effect on Northern Ireland. The enormity of his bigotry, and the larger-than-life nature of his personality, have tended to draw the attention of both supporters and observers. He has said, and allowed to be said by others, things that would be unacceptable in civilised countries. He has created a climate where, for a while, his supporters could give expression to blatantly sectarian opinions. His dominance of the northern Irish political scene provided a seemingly solid ground for such expression. Yet while this was going on the world was changing. Paisley started his career of rabble-rousing at a time before human rights, before tolerance or respect for diversity, and his constant presence over more than 40 years has tended to obscure the changes that have taken place in all those fields. Paisley's generation has not moved forward, and has always had him to support them.

But when he leaves the scene, we may find that behind the fa├žade of outdated prejudice that he encouraged and sheltered, there are younger and more tolerant people who do not entirely share his viewpoint. While he was alive they either kept quiet or toed his dominant line, but when he dies, they may come into their own. Like Spain after the death of Franco, or Eastern Europe after Communism, we may find that the monolith was a screen behind which change was going on out of sight. When Paisley dies the chief support and justification of the other lesser bigots will be gone. Exposed to the light of day, and to modern expectations of tolerance, democracy and mutual respect, they may fade away into well-deserved obscurity. Their places may be taken by people who have more modern attitudes towards religion, nationality, respect and tolerance. Already hints are being made about the 'modernising' wing of the DUP, but as long as Paisley is still in change they remain unproven. After his death we could yet see a pragmatic and reasonable version of unionism. His death may allow unionism to collectively heap on his shoulders the evils of its past and emerge, like a moth from a chrysalis, renewed and free from its ugly history. Like the cocoon, Paisley can be dropped and forgotten.

Maybe Paisley's death will thus bring about the speedy death of Northern Irish Protestant bigotry, and Northern Irish unionist intolerance. Within a few years of his death his generation will be gone and forgotten, and a new generation, less tainted with religious bigotry, less obsessed with the Empire of their past, and less ignorant of the world of their present, will be in charge.

If for no other reason, his passing is eagerly awaited.