Paisley, leadership and knowing when to go

The fact of the matter is that by 2008 the Paisley era was over. For years he hurled snowballs and political footballs at potential peacemakers, he eventually trumped the Ulster Unionist Party, and on entering into government with Sinn Féin he boasted of brokering peace in Northern Ireland and securing the Union. As well as uncovering contested histories within the Democratic Unionist Party, Eamonn Mallie’s recent ‘Paisley’ documentary highlights the significant role that timing can play in leadership and in forging legacies, and the perils of not knowing when to move on. Paisley’s fall from grace is reminiscent to those of Margaret Thatcher and Charles Haughey, two colossal political figures who went before him albeit in Britain and the Republic of Ireland respectively. All three needed and demonised enemies to survive and thrive. Whereas US Presidents may enjoy the benefit of restricted terms of office, the likes of Haughey, Thatcher and Paisley have not been so fortunate.

In Mallie’s documentary, Paisley laments what he considered as his premature departure from office, and lambasts then deputies Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds for forcing him out. For decades he was hell bent on taking down others, notably Terence O’Neill, Brian Faulkner and David Trimble, but now expects us to sympathise with his own removal. The St Andrew’s Agreement triggered a transition in Northern Ireland, and the DUP was not immune. What Robinson and Dodds did, or are accused of doing, seems ruthless but very few have a track record more ruthless than Ian Paisley. A politician of his experience should have known when to step down, but he just could not imagine the party without him.

Similar to ‘Paisley’, in Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Downing Street Diaries’ never did it occur to her that she might have outstayed her welcome as British Prime Minister. Like Paisley, she laments and lambasts those around her for honing their own leadership ambitions. As a result of Thatcher’s reign, some of the best Tory talent of that time period was simply squeezed out, arguably leading to the Conservative Party’s identity crisis which exists even today. Thatcher thrived on the weakness of her external enemies; internally she bullied colleagues she came to think of as weak, seeking to strengthen her own position; but ultimately it was the enemy within her own cabinet which forced her out.

Charles Haughey certainly shared Paisley and Thatcher’s ability or willingness to divide and bully others. He was the great survivor, often dubbed the modern Machiavellian prince and accused of desiring power for its own sake. Heave after heave, scandal after scandal, he clung on to power but to the detriment of the Fianna Fáil party’s credibility and showing in the polls. In the end, however, like Paisley and Thatcher he met his match in a new generation of politicians, and his head too was served on a plate by party colleagues. Stepping down, in the Dáil Haughey sought to paint a picture of himself as a fallen hero, quoting Shakespeare’s Othelo. Like Paisley and Thatcher, ‘The Boss’ had lost almost all sense of reality.

Mallie’s ‘Paisley’ documentary will anger fractions of the DUP faithful who for decades looked to the Big Man as the saviour of the Union. Many will be astonished that the likes of Robinson and Dodds treated him the way they did, but in reality his departure from centre stage was far from premature. Like Thatcher and Haughey, he paid the price for staying too long; he will forever remain a figure of controversy and his long shadow will continue to haunt the political party he came to personify.

About Connor Daly

Connor is Editor of Northern Slant. His interests include politics, human rights, current affairs and communications.