Ian Paisley and the Zelig Complex


One of the downsides of the explosion in blogging, micro-blogging  and online publishing is the emergence of the Zelig Complex. Those of a certain age will remember the Woody Allen film in which his character inserts himself into historic events. Zelig so yearns for approval that he changes character – chameleon like – to blend into whatever situation he finds himself in.

Allen, who seems to have the inside track on modern neuroses, knew instinctively then that we were entering a period of human history when mankind was so self-absorbed that we would lose sight of where the line between reality and celebrity lies. Photo-bombing and the Selfie are the most recent manifestations of this.

In journalism, the equivalent is the retelling of stories of close encounters with statesmen and women, stars, writers and artists and anyone else likely to earn for themselves a footnote in history. Often the source of anecdotes for dinner parties, or bar room banter, these stories can assume mythic proportions. Their currency is highest at the moment when the subject of the story passes into history.

I have led a sheltered life, and these moments for me are few and far between. When news came this week of the death of the Rev Ian Paisley I was presented with one of those moments. Nervous of betraying my Zelig-like tendencies, I initially stayed my hand. But it is impossible to let this passing of an era go without committing some thoughts to the page.

There is an old Irish tradition of never speaking ill of the dead. For some it’s an easy stricture to observe. Others test it. With the passing of Ian Paisley, it is a rule of etiquette that has been pushed to the limits and beyond.

Ironically, it was a former leader of the consensus-seeking, polite and middle class Alliance Party who couldn’t withhold his negative judgment on the ‘Big Man’ of British and Irish politics. John Cushnahan expressed astonishment at the way history was being rewritten. Paisley’s life was marked by “nakedly sectarian acts and deeds”. For the majority of his political life, Paisley had inflicted “pain and suffering” on the people of Northern Ireland throughout his political life.

As an antidote, the handwritten words of Paisley’s political foe, and then job-share partner, Martin McGuinness has a poignancy alongside a continuing political charge. “In rising above old enmities we pointed the to a better and peaceful future. The peace process and I have lost a friend.” (Zelig-ologists will notice the intrusive ‘we’ in his comments.)

The irony is that, for Ian Paisley, his 2007 conversion to the principles of power sharing came too late. By that time thousands had lost their lives, and many more had lost their belief in a positive future for Northern Ireland. He achieved his life-long ambition of being First Minister, but as a leader of a party that had a Pavlovian response to the prospect of working with republicans and nationalists.

Ian Paisley had trained them in the art of saying No. And he trained them well. His successor as DUP leader, Peter Robinson, has proven unfit to the task of peacemaker, and the so-called peace process is running into the sand.

In a balanced and compassionate editorial, which did not pull its punches, The Irish News summed up his legacy well. “Today the party which he founded is constrained in policy and politics because the theory and practice of Paisleyism lives on. For him that represents an unfortunate political legacy. For the rest of us it is a burden which we have not yet learned to unload.”

On reflection, it’s difficult not to believe that there were two Ian Paisleys operating in Northern Ireland at the same time. There was the anti-Catholic bigot, and the MP who worked as hard for his Catholic constituents as the Protestant ones; there was the man who opposed violence, and the firebrand who used paramilitarism as a weapon. There was the fundamentalist fire and brimstone preacher, and the loving husband I once witnessed patting his wife on the bottom as they queued for food at a carvery. (Zelig moment there).

I did not know him well. But I met one Ian Paisley who went for me in a television interview, implying I had suggested in an editorial that he should be shot. “You said you wanted me silenced… silenced.” In fact what the paper had said was if he had nothing constructive to say “a period of silence was recommended”.

On another occasion, at a dinner party, I met another Ian Paisley who put a comforting arm around my shoulder and praised the work of Imagine Belfast 2008 – the company that failed in its bid to bring the European Capital of Culture to the city. I was its chair and that day the Northern Ireland Audit Office had issued a mildly critical report on how we went about it. I was expecting a ribbing, but not a bit of it.

He was, it must be said, the life and soul of that particular party. Relaxed, supremely self-confident, and cracking jokes. He could easily have had a career on the stage (and perhaps he had).

Yet this was the same Ian Paisley who, a generation earlier, had been preaching at the end of a street while a mob was intimidating my in-laws out of their home. My wife became a refugee in her own city. Yet she sat beside him laughing and enjoying the crack. Such is the journey some have made in Northern Ireland.

Reflecting now a few days after his passing, the Ian Paisley I see in my mind’s eye is an ordinary human being, like the rest of us afflicted by the Zelig Complex.

He inserted himself in history, and changed it irrevocably. But for all Martin McGuinness’s fine words (and he carries a lot of baggage of his own) I doubt that Paisley’s lasting legacy will be a positive one. Northern Ireland remains the land of: “Never, Never, Never.” There are people engaged in sectarianism today who never experienced the Troubles. I hope history proves me wrong.

May he rest in peace.