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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Great week for Paisley

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Even his severest critics would have to admit that it was a great week for Ian Paisley. There was just one dodgy moment (to which I'll return later), but it was fleeting. Overall it is hard to conceive that Paisley can do anything which will further enhance his legacy before he retires or, for that matter, in his lifetime. Things just don't get much better, even the weather was stunning for Paisley's lap of honour.

It was a week in which he opened the Boyne Heritage Centre with Bertie Ahern, described Martin McGuinness as "my friend here" and predicted repeatedly that there could never be any return to the bad old days of hatred and division. He spoke of tolerance, of the beautiful island of Ireland we all shared and of the task of building a common future between north and south and all communities. It's hard to believe that this was the same Paisley as did so much to feed fear and suspicion in the past.

Watching him I couldn't help remembering the words of Hugh McClean as he faced trial for one of the first sectarian murders of the Troubles. "I am terribly sorry I ever heard tell of that man Paisley or decided to follow him" he told police questioning him about the death of Peter Ward. As it happens Ward died on June 26 1966, almost forty two years to the day before Paisley is expected to step down as first minister of a power sharing executive and hand over to Peter Robinson.

At his trial McClean was asked was asked why he joined the UVF. He replied "I was asked did I agree with Paisley and was I prepared to follow him".

There is nothing to suggest that Paisley was aware of this question, much less that he supported the UVF's murder campaign. Yet it is equally clear that his rhetoric was sufficiently inflammatory for the UVF to use approval for his uncompromising political line as a convenient rule of thumb when screening potential recruits.

It is hard to think of a greater change of heart and image than the one Paisley has undergone, or of a career starting so menacingly yet ending on such a conciliatory note. The nearest analogy that springs to mind is a fictional one, the dramatic reversal in the attitudes of Ebenezer Scrooge to the festive season in Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol.

There was even a verbal echo. As Scrooge, who previously derided Christmas, presented Bob Cratchit's family with a huge turkey and other treats Tiny Tim, Cratchit's son, announced "God Bless us every one" and embraced Scrooge as his second father.

Paisley's wife Eileen expressed herself in similar terms while attending the opening of the Boyne Heritage Centre. Speaking movingly in the marquee after the main event, she spoke movingly about her love for Ireland and her hopes for the future, she said: "May God bless you all north, south, east and west, everyman, woman and child in the future days". Baroness Paisley then threw her arms round a visibly moved Bertie Ahern.

It seemed earlier, if only for a brief moment, that the occasion might be soured. In his mammoth speech her husband began with references to Romanist plots to massacre Protestants and a somewhat triumphalist account of the battle. The passage turned out to be the equivalent of the "wrap the green flag round me" rhetoric which nationalist politicians occasionally used to draw strength from their deepest political roots before moving forward.

As the French historian Maurice Goldring observed: "In Ireland evolution always wears the mask of tradition and the country advances backwards with its eyes firmly fixed on the past."

It may have played a role in reassuring Orangemen in the audience, but within minutes Paisley had recovered nicely. "There can be no turning back. The killing times must end for ever and no tolerance must be given to those who advocate their return. A strong dedication to peace and an intolerance of murder must drive us forward. This must be the end of all atrocities and the building of the ways of peace. The coming generation has a right to demand this from us" he said, with the power and clarity of an Old Testament prophet.

It was as if he had read or remembered another passage from Goldring just in time. "A people whose sole justification for the present situation is probing the wounds of the past hastens its own downfall, even if it experiences intense pleasure in doing so." It is a means, Goldring observed, of "keeping these wounds open". Paisley seemed determined that they would be closed and healed once and for all.

He showed real vision at the US Investment Conference, and pinpointed the pressing need of Northern Ireland to stop whinging and its determination to make itself useful to the world. "We are not here begging for money. We are saying 'Come with us and we will do you good' and we believe there will be mutual respect and mutual benefit for us all" he told the 120 or so senior US executives who visited the province to scout investment opportunities.

Paisley said that he and Martin McGuinness had got the best deal they could and that both they and their parties accepted it. McGuinness backed him up. "We have effectively changed the course of Irish history" he said. "The old days will never return. We are moving forward to a better future."

Both men played a blinder, presenting a positive, 'can do' image of a province open for business. They appeared to be taking on board Brian Cowen's hint that Northern Ireland should capitalise on its unique links with the powerful economies of the republic, Britain, America and Europe to build a prosperous future.

In the past the province has given the impression that the world owed it a living because of its troubled past. If that card was worth anything, its currency is fast running out.

At present the British exchequer pays about £16 billion a year into Northern Ireland but gets only £8 billion out. One of Gordon's Brown's main priorities is to cut this amount down and to persuade the place to stand on its own two feet.

British government thinking was clear in the two Varney reviews of taxation in Northern Ireland. They recommended cutting the civil service, selling off land and government controlled services, such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, to raise capital. Brown has said that he will let the Stormont executive keep up to £2.2 billion of the proceeds for infrastructural projects.

With pressure Brown may be prepared to hand over some old army bases, like the huge Lisanelly complex in Omagh, to add to the executive's resources. This is possible but nothing will be achieved by looking a gift horse in the mouth and whinging about the poor state of the property market or keeping demanding cuts in corporation tax to match the republic.

Brown has refused differential tax rates and that is unlikely to change unless Northern Ireland goes for a greater deal of fiscal autonomy and is prepared to forgo some of its present subsidy. If the economy grows that may be an option for the future, but it would be madness now. Continually drawing attention to the issue, as Sir Anthony O'Reilly did at the Investment conference, is more likely to suggest to investors that they would be better off south of the border.

O'Reilly's frustration is understandable but, even as things stand, Northern Ireland has an attractive grants and taxation package. The challenge is to make best use of it. We also have land and resources paid for by the British exchequer and a US Investment fund, the Emerald Fund, set up specifically to buy into our infrastructure.

This is the hand that we have been dealt and if we want more money to spend we have to try to make it a winner. As Paisley said "I have heard all sorts of sob stories from my own people saying 'Oh it's a terrible time' ... Well I find in politics when things are bad, you do better."

The need for peace and tolerance; an end to the politics of the sob story and the begging bowl. Who would have expected such parting advice from Ian Paisley?

May 12, 2008

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on May 11, 2008.