'I was rescued from the IRA that early' - Ian Paisley talks to Ian Jack
The Reverend Dr is such a nice old fella. Let us all be like this, I thought at one point, if by God's grace we reach 82. From the moment he came into the room until the moment, an hour and 15 minutes later, that I left it, his predominant mood was sweet good humour. So many of his thoughts and memories had a smile or a laugh attached to them - laughter that seemed not at all forced, quite boyish in its pitch. Sometimes it took me a while to understand the comedy. Why, for example, did he smile when he described his birthplace, Armagh, as "the ecclesiastical capital of the great country of Ireland"? Eventually the penny dropped. His smile was the sardonic equivalent of quote marks: the archbishops of both the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic church have their palaces in Armagh, episcopacy is ridiculous and undivided Ireland a fantasy. No mention, though, of the great whore of Rome.
I asked why he had softened. "Well," Paisley said, "I'd say people who would think that might possibly not know me," meaning on the one hand that he was no softer than before and on the other that softness had always been one of his qualities, though not well advertised. But the Chuckle Brothers? The picture of him as Northern Ireland's new first minister with , formerly of the IRA, as his deputy, an unlikely partnership of bitter enemies, laughing fit to bust - it must have surprised and upset some of his supporters?
He laughed. "Oh, I'm sure it did. I said to one of them one day, 'Do you want me to go about with a long face? Far better to have McGuinness chuckling and going about his business in a democratic way than having him as the head of the IRA killing people.' "
But Paisley wanted to have it both ways. "And that Chuckle Brothers photograph, you know, was never taken. That was two separate photographs..."
"Oh, we were taken together many times, but that picture was taken when the prime minister [Tony Blair] was here and the prime minister was sitting beside me and I said to the pee em, 'I don't know why so many people don't like me - because I'm a very likable person.' D'ye know?" He was laughing again. So was I. "And we laughed. And McGuinness was in another part of the room and he laughed. And they put those two photos together."
Other photographs, no less jolly, were surely not faked. He has a selective memory of the past, of which in his case there is so much. We met in his office at Stormont, the most majestically sited government building in the United Kingdom, opened by Edward, Prince of Wales in 1932 when Paisley was six years old. A statue of Edward Carson, without whom would not exist, stands near the top of Stormont's steep lawns. Paisley has a sketch of the same great Unionist hero hanging on the office wall.
The state Paisley served as first minister is only a little older than he is, and it has never been secure. He remembered that one night his father had been taken off his motorbike by the IRA and put against a wall to be shot. "And there was this Roman Catholic man who came and spoke to them and said this man's a minister and his wife's just given birth to a baby boy. And he said you can take this man's life but his blood will be on you for ever. So they let my father off with a strong warning that he tell nobody. And he didn't because he was a wise man." He finished the story, laughing. "The baby boy was me. So you could really say I was rescued from the jaws of the IRA that early."
His ancestors were not old Ulster Protestant stock - not, as he said, "Plantation men" who settled there in the 17th century. They had perhaps the zealousness of the newly arrived. His father's father moved from Scotland to Tyrone about 1870, his mother from Scotland to Lurgan in the early decades of the 20th century. Unlike the leading lights of "official" Ulster Unionism, all now dead or dimmed, he was not well born. His father left his trade as a draper to become a Baptist preacher. His mother until her marriage worked as a governess to a doctor's family in Lurgan - "Dr Darling," Paisley said, "a very prominent physician and a leading light in the Plymouth Brethren." The words give a clue not just to Paisley's age, but to a part of these islands that clung to ways of believing and living that had vanished elsewhere (even in Presbyterian Scotland) long before. That he campaigned against homosexual law reform ("Save Ulster from Sodomy") is not surprising; he is, after all, Westminster's oldest MP and gay rights are relatively new. But to discover that as a young preacher he opposed liquor advertising on the sides of Belfast tramcars is to realise that he survives from what in English terms is a different age, an age at the furthest edge of living memory, if not necessarily a worse one.
He was brought up in Ballymena. I asked about Sundays there in his youth. "It was a very strongly Sabbatarian town. I am still a strong Sabbatarian. I think Sunday should be observed as it was in my young days - it would be better for everybody. It was a long religious day. Morning service, afternoon Sunday school, evening service. And the preacher would preach from three-quarters of an hour to an hour. They weren't just sips, y'know? You didn't have much time for anything else."
"You found it uplifting and necessary?"
"I was brought up to try to attain the means of grace. You needed to know the lessons of the Bible, the Presbyterian shorter catechism. That was a must."
"You never had any doubts?"
"I would doubt the man that never doubted."
"But you reconciled those doubts?"
"I believe the Bible is the word of God. What the Bible says I believe is true. There are things I don't understand, but those mysteries are part of the proof that God exists."
"These days you would be called a creationist."
"Oh yes. And a fundamentalist. An evangelical fundamentalist."
"That would mean Adam was the first man, the world was created in a week, and we are all descended from the children of Noah?"
The reverend doctor said that would most certainly be the case. He was chortling. "I don't have any desire to be related to monkeys. They are not my pedigree." Entirely unconscious of any treacherous similarity, he gave a little primate-like whoop.
He has neither smoked nor drunk. Dancing, though I didn't ask about it, would be even less likely. His older brother Harold volunteered for the RAF in the second world war and became "a terrible drunkard and gambler" until "a wonderful conversion" led him to the Plymouth Brethren and Canada (where he still preaches), but carnal and irresistible temptation seems never to have come Ian's way. Lack of national service may be partly to blame. Fearful of nationalist opposition, the British government never introduced conscription to Northern Ireland, which allowed him to pursue his Bible studies at colleges in south Wales and Belfast without interruptions in uniform. His loyalty to the British Crown has been expressed entirely in words and public stunts: a recruiter rather than a fighter, but with some bloody-minded recruits.
Trying to get some idea of his secular pleasures, I asked about the cinema. "Oh no, we never went to the cinema. You didn't go to the cinema. It was looked upon as a place that you didn't frequent if you were a Christian."
Would he go to the cinema now? "No." Had he ever been to a cinema? "Oh yes, I have." He was beaming. "The first time I went to the cinema was to see a picture of Oliver Cromwell." That would be the one with Richard Harris and Alec Guinness? "That's right. It was very enjoyable." Oliver Cromwell came out in 1970. Ian Paisley was at least 44 before he sat in a darkened hall looking up at a screen - one of the great universal experiences of the 20th century - and he has rarely, if ever, repeated it.
Books are what matter. He has published 20: titles such as A Text A Day Keeps The Devil Away and so forth, but also An Exposition Of The Epistle To The Romans, which he wrote in 1966 when he was serving a three-month prison sentence for unlawful assembly (St Paul also wrote his letters from a cell, but unlike Paisley was not rewarded with an honorary doctorate from the Bob Jones University, Greenville, South Carolina). He is also a bibliophile, by his own account an avid reader who has a library of about 20,000 books, a number that is constantly growing. He said he visited secondhand bookshops wherever he went; it was his perfect recreation. He was well known for it in the trade: "People in secondhand bookstores will say, Ian Paisley was here."
And what did he buy? "History. Anything that would come my way. I couldn't do without books."
Recently on official business in Dublin, he'd been taken around Trinity College's library (which holds the Book Of Kells) by the university's provost. Did they have all 22 volumes of the work of Archbishop Usher, the first Protestant archbishop of Ireland? No, the provost said, only two of the 22 were held by the library. Ah, but Paisley had the full set! He told the story proudly but charmingly.
"So you're going to donate your full edition to Trinity College?"
"No, I am not!"
No fiction, I noticed. What novels had he liked? We had to go back a long way - to his childhood, which means to the childhood of our Victorian ancestors. He mentioned two authors, Captain Marryat and Joseph Hocking. Marryat's most famous book is The Children Of The New Forest, though Paisley remembered stirring adventure stories set in Canada. As for Hocking (1860-1937), he wrote as a Methodist minister who took an excited view of the Vatican, and though his books have attractive titles (The Scarlet Woman, The Purple Robe), their plots must be no more than hazy memories even in the Orange lodges of County Tyrone.
Materialism - peace from the horn of plenty - has melted religion as the paramount social influence in both parts of Ireland. I tried to put it to Paisley that in the big scheme of things mammon rather than the Pope had turned out to be the enemy. The Protestant-Catholic conflict has been shrunk by new habits of spending and disbelief. In Belfast, chapels have been turned into wine bars, church attendance is sparser even in his own church, liquor is served at political dinners even of his own party. And next to the City Hall, that former bastion of Protestant rectitude, a big wheel like the London Eye has been set up, where people pay money and have fun. To have Paisley emerge as the leader of such a society is like imagining the Ayatollah Khomeini (a smiling version) in charge of Dubai.
I asked the question about the triumph of consumerism in various ways, but it always seemed beyond him. It was as though he had heard a different question, about the things that had obsessed him for the past 60 years. He said: "I believe in the complete freedom of people to make their choice religiously, but... I don't believe you can make men Christian by passing laws." And: "People looking in on Northern Ireland had the idea of it as a place where Roman Catholics were persecuted. There was far more taking away of similar religious liberties in the south than there ever was in the north."
Likewise, a question about the Unionist community. As the Northern Irish historian ATQ Stewart once wrote, conflicts don't have solutions, they have winners and losers. A common perception is that the Unionists have lost. Many of their aspiring young have migrated over the water, a process that began long before the Chuckle Brothers assumed power in the new Stormont assembly. No reliable figures are available, but there's an acronym, Nipples, to describe Northern Ireland Protestant Professionals Living in England and Scotland. Didn't this loss sadden him? Again, he heard something else - a question about his own behaviour.
"Well, my reading of the matter is that in the political world you should have the ability to work together with people who have other views. I have worked with the Sinn Féiners and I was accused by many people on my side of being a traitor and all that, but that doesn't worry me at all. I was always of the opinion that we could find a solution to our problems here by people realising that they couldn't have all that they wanted. Leaving aside the religious issues, I believe I can work with people, even those I detest for some of the things they've done in the past. They know where I stand. I'm in the fortunate position that I don't need to explain to my people what I stand for because I've made my views public for a whole generation."
It was interesting to hear him say that - how he had made his people realise they couldn't have all that they wanted; which meant, though he didn't say this, all that they'd had. So many Unionist politicians had started down the same road of persuasion, beginning with Terence O'Neill in 1965. When the Irish taoiseach, Sean Lemass, came north to meet Northern Ireland's prime minister that year - an unprecedented visit - Paisley raged against O'Neill as a traitor and dictator. The same with O'Neill's forgotten successors: Chichester-Clark, Faulkner. The same with the Sunningdale Agreement, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Belfast Agreement, the Presbyterian church, the civil rights movement, the ecumenical movement: all treachery to Paisley's version of the Protestant and Unionist cause, all to be attacked and demeaned and conspired against and sometimes destroyed while the church and the party Paisley founded - the Free Presbyterian Church and the Democratic Unionist Party - grew ever larger, as, not coincidentally, did the IRA.
Paisley stood against O'Neill, the mild reformer, in a Stormont election and eventually did for him. I wondered if he found it ironic that, 40 years later, he had found himself heading a government that in its radical composition, its need to satisfy Republican demands, went well beyond anything O'Neill could have dreamed of.
"Well, that is true, but then again, I mean, I didn't need to surrender any of my principles to do that. We had put on us by the British government a form of government that is not democratic [direct rule]. Do you continue in a state of having no say in your own country or are you prepared - not to sell your principles but to share power with people who accept the basis of democracy? I stood out - that I could not sit in a government until that government, all of them, accepted the rule of law and accepted the citizen's responsibility to give information about terrorist activity to the police."
Nobody in London thought Sinn Féin would buy that. Paisley said that one day Tony Blair had called him seven or eight times to tell him he had to give in. "I said, 'Look, please don't ring me again, I don't want to talk about this any more. I've told you there's a basis for government - everybody must be obedient to the law.' And eventually of course he gave in."
He was chuckling again. "Of course, he's a supreme actor." (And also, it might be added, a superb soft soaper; under his watch, Paisley became a Privy Councillor and his wife was installed in the House of Lords.) He has a kind word for several politicians. John Hume and Gordon Brown are both decent men, though Brown has been too mean with Northern Irish subsidy.
"Was Thatcher attractive to you?" (After the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, he'd led his congregation in a prayer asking God to take vengeance on "this wicked, treacherous, lying woman".)
"Margaret? I got on well with Margaret." He told a story of how he'd made her nearly smash a Downing Street chair with temper one night. "Things were very rough over here and she'd come in from a long debate in the House. Her hair had got the worse for wear in the day and she was wretched looking. She pulled her chair up to the fire and she kicked off her shoes, one to one corner, the other to the other, and she said, 'Ian, what do you want?' "
It was a vivid picture. "And oh, I was seething mad about a lot of things - people were shot dead night after night and I was very angry. And she lost her head and she brought her fist down on the chair's arm and nearly broke it." Paisley reprimanded her that prime ministers should not lose their tempers. Thatcher shouted that he shouldn't dare speak to her like that. Eventually she calmed down and, according to Paisley, asked his forgiveness. "I told her, 'I'm a Christian, prime minister, and I'm glad to forgive you.'
"She didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Oh aye, Margaret Thatcher was a good woman. I believe she was sincere and honourable, but of course at night she was sore on the bottle, very sore on the bottle. I have seen her almost drunk, aye. She must have a very good constitution."
It takes one to know one. Until his late 70s, Paisley was both an MP and an MEP, the leader of both his party and his church, institutions that he founded and shaped entirely to his will and ends. He still does three jobs, representing the constituents of North Antrim at Westminster and Stormont, and preaching at his church twice on Sundays. He rises early. Some mornings he's up and reading his Bible at 5am. He has five children and 10 grandchildren. "And I hope to have a great-grandchild shortly. We're keeping the votes up! They're all Paisley voters."
What formidable energy has been at work here, and what a formidable ego. How else, other than divine intervention, can you explain the success of a British-Irish politician in the early 21st century whose career depended on the simple slogans of "No surrender!" and "Never", for whom the Reformation has remained the last great human development.
And then, in 2007, "Never" was suddenly abolished and Paisley became first minister, a Chuckle Brother for a year. His resignation in May puzzled many people. An illness was thought to have affected him; his son, Ian Junior, had been named in a story alleging sleaze. The better explanation, it seemed to me, watching him laugh so likably, was that at last his ego had been sated.