The United States of America and Northern Ireland


The death of Ian Paisley

September 12, 2014

Andrew Sanders


In the 1964 UK General Election, the Republican Clubs stood candidate Billy, also known as Liam, McMillen as an Independent Republican for the Belfast West seat.  McMillen would become a hugely significant figure in the Official Republican Movement after the 1969-1970 split in the republican movement, but only achieved 3,256 votes in 1964, squeezed out by Republican Labour candidate Harry Diamond, who finished second to the Ulster Unionist James Kilfedder, and the Northern Ireland Labour Party's Billy Boyd, who finished third.  Nonetheless, McMillen achieved some notoriety by flying the flag of the Republic of Ireland in his election office in the lower Falls area of West Belfast.

McMillen had served in the IRA's unsuccessful Border Campaign between 1956 and 1962 and had been interned in Crumlin Road jail, now a museum.  The Flags and Emblems (Display) Act (Northern Ireland) of 1954 effectively made the display of the irish flag in Northern Ireland illegal - on the rationale that it could provoke a breach of public order.  McMillen's choice of office decor did just this.  The Reverend Ian Richard Kyle Paisley informed authorities that if the flag was not removed, he and his supporters would march on the office and remove it themselves.  On the night of 28 September 1964, the Royal Ulster Constabulary did just that, smashing the door of the office and removing the flag, which was promptly replaced by republicans.  

Until this point, Paisley was perhaps best known for throwing snowballs at visiting Taoiseach Sean Lemass in Belfast in 1965.

Paisley's bombastic style was equally evident in his formation of the Ulster Protestant Volunteers in 1966, a paramilitary group aligned with the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee, founded to coincide with the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.  So strong was the feeling in loyalist communities that the IRA was set to return to commemorate the 1916 martyrs by continuing their campaign that a group of Ulster Volunteer Force members, led by Gusty Spence, went out and killed John Scullion, Peter Ward and Matilda Gould in some misguided form of pre-emptive strike.  According to Tim Pat Coogan, one of those convicted blamed Paisley for leading him towards his deadly actions.

The UPV was only the first of Paisley's paramilitary groups; he formed the Third Force in 1981 and the Ulster Resistance in 1986.

Paisley was quickly jailed, coincidentally in Crumlin Road, for unlawful assembly after his protest at the direction of the Presbyterian Church ended up inciting a riot in Belfast in June of 1966.  In November 1968 he and Major Ronald Bunting, an ally whose son went on to become a prominent member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, prevented a civil rights march from taking place after appearing in Armagh along with men carrying weapons.  They were jailed briefly for organising an illegal counter-demonstration.



Perhaps his most famous political stand occurred in 1985 when he organised a huge protest at the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.  Estimates of between 100,000 and a quarter of a million people met at City Hall in Belfast for the "Ulster says No" event where Paisley, in typically bombastic style, stated:

Where do the terrorists operate from? From the Irish Republic! Where do the terrorists return to for sanctuary? To the Irish Republic! And yet Mrs. Thatcher tells us that the Republic must have some say in our Province. We say never, never, never, never!

The Agreement was a crucial step in the Northern Ireland peace process, enshrining the role of the Republic of Ireland in the future of Northern Ireland and was a hugely significant step taken by the Margaret Thatcher government in London which had previously taken a very hard line on Irish nationalism.  Paisley had attempted to organise previous strikes, modelling his 1977 United Unionist Action Council strike on the 1974 Ulster Workers Council strike, which had helped to bring down the power sharing assembly at Stormont.  The UUAC strike failed but Paisley reneged on his promist to retire from politics in the event that the strike was unsuccessful.  Compared to the UWC strike, the UUAC strike had the relatively modest aim of forcing Northern Ireland secretary Roy Mason to act against the Provisional IRA.

As the peace process started to take control of Northern Irish politics, Paisley was an ever present at the annual summer marches of the Orange Order, famously walking down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble in 1995 after the march through the predominantly nationalist area was permitted by the RUC.

Along with his Democratic Unionist Party, which he had founded along with Desmond Boal and members of the Protestant Unionist Party in 1971, he walked out of talks chaired by Senator George Mitchell in 1998 after Sinn Fein was permitted to participate following the Provisional IRA's lasting ceasefire of 1997.  

The DUP opposed the Good Friday Agreement on a number of issues, notably the release of prisoners, the issue of power sharing which would permit Sinn Fein into government despite on-going IRA activity, and the North/South dimension of the agreement.  It initially refused to take part in Executive Committee meetings in protest at Sinn Fein's involvement in the Assembly, but in 2003 became the largest party in the Assembly with 30 seats.  It then won nine Westminster seats in the 2005 UK General Election.

Paisley again won the North Antrim seat in that election and, in October 2006 following the St Andrews Agreement, agreed to new elections and support for the Northern Ireland Executive.  Eventually, the DUP and Sinn Fein reached an agreement that the executive would be established in May 2007, with Paisley serving as First Minister and former IRA officer Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minsiter.  He stepped down as the leader of the DUP in March 2008 and was succeeded by Peter Robinson.

He stepped down as MP for North Antrim in 2010 and was introduced to the House of Lords in July 2010.

His death at the age of 88 marks the first passing of a peace process-era Northern Ireland political leader, but the four major political figures of the time are all now considerably less visible in Northern Irish politics than they once were.  Gerry Adams is now TD for Louth, still serving as Sinn Fein President.  David Trimble's departure as leader marked the beginning of the end of the UUPs political dominance and he is now also in the House of Lords and, in 2007, joined the Conservative Party.  John Hume still lives in Derry but is reportedly suffering from declining health.

Of these figures, Adams and Paisley were by far the most controversial.  Adams remains a figure of controversy, with on-going investigations in to his role in the Provisional IRA and the disappearances of people over the course of the IRA's campaign.  Like Adams, Paisley's late career was defined by compromise.  Where Adams and McGuinness had pledged to force the British from Ireland, Paisley had pledged never to co-exist with Sinn Fein.

The sense of betrayal, reported by Tim Pat Coogan of the earliest murderers of the Northern Ireland troubles, has been felt most acutely by the loyalist people of Northern Ireland.  It was them who voted, year after year, for Paisley's party, notably in East Belfast where Paisley's long time lieutenant Peter Robinson served as MP until 2010.  Here, the cynical manipulation of the DUP was never more evident than during the 2012-2013 flag protests, provoked in part by a campaign of flyering by the DUP, partially in spite at existing MP Naomi Long, who had won the seat for the Alliance Party from Robinson in 2010.



Ian Paisley may well have gone into government with Martin McGuinness, a hugely significant event for the Northern Ireland peace process, but the scars he and his followers have left on Northern Irish society remain.