After 45 years as Northern Ireland’s leading demagogue the 82 year old sectarian preacher Reverend Doctor Ian Paisley has exited the political stage. He has resigned, as of May, his position as Stormont’s First Minister as well as Leader of his Democratic Unionist Party. He is Reverend of the Free Presbyterian Church, which can only be described as a shrill caricature of fundamentalist hokum and evangelical brimstone. He will hold on to his honorary Doctorate in Divinity bestowed upon him by the racist Bob Jones University.
Since his rival David Trimble and the Ulster Unionists along with the Good Friday Agreement fell, in large part, to his opposition, Paisley reconstructed the GFA with the pliant agreement of Sinn Fein into an even more sectarian and unionist agreement. Through the provisions of the October, 2006 Saint Andrew’s Agreement Ian Paisley became First Minister in a devolved Stormont regime. The structures of this regime are premised on a sectarian division. To create positions to fill it has more ministers, more members and more expenses than any other political entity its size. This large bureaucracy is perfect for handing out positions and sweetening pots. The Welsh and Scottish Assemblies have much more self rule than the one that sits in Ireland. Northern Ireland’s union with Britain is guaranteed by the Agreement and the Assembly itself carries a dual Unionist/British veto. It’s always potentially only a phone call away from collapsing if the Fenians ever get out of line.
Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has taken the job of Ian Paisley’s Deputy. Together they have become known as the “Chuckle Brothers” as they knee slap with George Bush and cut the opening ribbon to tacky shopping developments in Belfast. McGuinness’s lack of dignity not withstanding, the former IRA Commander sits as a Minister of the British Crown. This erstwhile revolutionary who once was at war with the very idea of a Stormont administers its rule. Sinn Fein still have the shamelessness to claim to be socialists as they partner with Ian Paisley, who believes the world is four thousand years old, the pope is the anti-Christ and who once led a “Save Ulster from Sodomy” campaign. The DUP is the most right-wing party in power in Western Europe and Sinn Fein “chuckle” as they administer the rule of a thoroughly capitalist British state with them.
Ireland of today, North and South, is vastly different than it was even ten years ago. The war the IRA waged against British rule is clearly over. Southern Ireland’s integration into the European Union has seen it grow economically. This once economic basket case now has one of the highest standards of living in Europe. Immigration trends have reversed and instead of Ireland being a point of departure it for the New World or Australia it has become a place of arrival for hundreds of thousands of workers from the newly EU countries of the east like Poland and Lithuania.
But Ireland remains partitioned and Northern Ireland remains firmly British. Northern Ireland cannot help but be based on sectarianism because partition, British rule, requires it. What has been achieved in the North is a rebalancing of sectarian privilege not its destruction. Sinn Fein has readily accepted this formula which necessitated their abandonment of all but the title of Irish Republicanism. But the problem with basing solutions on sectarian privilege is that it requires consensus and in the Stormont context that means a reactionary neo-liberal policy with no opposition.
It is also the nature of sectarian division to be unequal, otherwise there is no justification for the division. The unionist will always have the veto and the British state to back them up on whatever question should arise. The use of that veto to scuttle the attempt at an Irish Language act late last year proves the point. If even the Irish language isn’t to be recognized how can Irish speakers? Sectarian benefits are doled out with precision. EU funds in particular are apportioned out to any number of projects defined by community or intercommunity, which can amount to the same thing since it is also premised on sectarian division. More than a few former guerillas now man these well funded community centers. Foreign investment and economic growth have not led to a single integrated school in Ireland or a single one of the “Peace Walls” to come down.
As I watched BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight on Tuesday as the substance of Paisley resignation began to seep in I was struck at the tone of the Unionists about Paisley’s legacy. Nigel Dodds of Paisley’s DUP and potential successor as party leader made it perfectly clear that from his perspective what was to celebrate about Paisley’s life was Paisley’s commitment to the Union and Unionist dominance within that Union. Far from a surrender to Sinn Fein, Dodds said, Paisley and the DUP had got them to not only drop their opposition to British rule but to be junior partners in its administration thus tying them politically to the fate of the union. Ironically, this is the same critique that many Republicans who disagree with the strategy Adams and McGuinness would invoke. His tone was one of bigoted triumphalism over the defeated nationalists. They would never see a united Ireland he said, and their leaders had even agreed to it.
There is nothing to celebrate in the life or politics of Ian Paisley. He has represented the worst kinds of divisions wrought by imperialism on Ireland. And no attempt to stand on the St. Andrews Agreement as history’s vindication will work. The agreement institutionalized a state that is a labyrinth of sectarianism and meaningless dispensations. It closes hospitals, cuts funding to education and pursues all of the devastating policies of neo-liberalism. Paisley’s gift to Ireland was almost 50 years of fighting for Protestant supremacy and Unionist rejection. That he became First Minister in his old age of a state with his former enemies that enshrined supremacy and rejection is no sign of change.
Though the war is over and I can’t imagine the circumstances that could reignite it, the state in the North is unstable. The pressures from within one side or the other could break down the consensus required to the balancing act. Due in large part to Sinn Fein’s malleability the balancing act may continue to work for a time. No balancing act lasts forever.
Unlike another Ian in another British colony Paisley wouldn’t go down like Rhodesia’s Ian Smith. Whatever clouds he may leave under and whatever may befall his party and their government one thing is clear after thirty-five years of strife; Ian Paisley won the war.