[This is an abridged version of the interview with Mr Paisley in my book 'Whose Past Is It Anyway?]
I have to wait an extra half hour to see Ian Paisley Jr., I’m not sure why. But eventually I get to the inner office and he leans back in his chair and eyes my microphone. Am I planning to broadcast this? I reassure him that no, as I mentioned in the letter it’s for getting interviews for my book. I start by asking him if politics was discussed in his house when he was growing up. “Funny enough - not at all!” He laughs at his own joke for a few moments, then becomes more serious.
“I grew up in a situation where there were police guards at our house, where for a period of time I had to go to school in the back of a police car. So that obviously had an impact, especially when I was a very young child. When your father carries a weapon - a gun - and you see that as a child, it does provoke thoughts as to why.”
He goes on to contrast that with his daughter’s experience of growing up.
“Two years ago my daughter said to me ‘Dad, I’m doing something in school in my history class. What were the Troubles?’ It was a word she’d never heard, because it was history she was talking about, it wasn’t actuality. She was fifteen then and her words were quite inspiring”.
When we talking of the signing of the Covenant, he stresses the range of people who signed it: “The tycoons of industry, influential religious figures on the Protestant and Evangelical and Episcopalian side. Not only captains of industry and people of religion, but major politicians, from prime ministers down - I mean really significant figures. My grandfather signed the Covenant in his own blood. I think I’m entitled to say what that means to me, not to be told by someone what it means to me, and I think that will be the feeling that will influence most people”.
I ask if commemoration of the signing of the Covenant - or other centenaries - might deepen division between people here.
“We’re a divided people anyway. What is important is how it’s handled and how it’s managed. The fact that the union is so safe now - for a whole host of reasons, including the outcome of the political negotiations and the economic situation that we find ourselves in today - means that I don’t think commemoration poses a threat”.
We move on to the subject of the Easter Rising.
“It was very much a case of ‘England’s disadvantage, Ireland’s advantage’, and there’s the view that the Easter Rising was the stab in the back.” He has no problem with the Irish government - “the current Irish government in the Republic of Ireland” - organising commemoration and celebration of the event. “But there was hardly anything of a Rising in Ulster, and to try to portray something up here that didn’t occur would be the airbrushing and rewriting of history...I’ve absolutely no doubt that some people will want to usurp the occasion and use it as a political tool; we have to caution against that and say that would be silly. That’s why I think the government in the south should take command and drive it. If they don’t, they will be the biggest losers”.
Would he be interested in attending any of the ceremonies around the Easter Rising commemoration?
“I don’t see why I would be inspired to attend. I’ve read about that history. It’d almost be like going and celebrating and understanding what happened in some of the death camps. I’ve always wanted to avoid going to Auschwitz. I’m just saying there are parts of history I’ll learn about, read about, understand. There are dark parts of history that wouldn’t inspire me to want to go and see it, or to want to go and commemorate it, but I would still want to understand it.”
He sees the commemoration of both the signing of the Covenant and the Easter Rising as preludes.
“I actually think that 2020 - whatever happens around that celebration or recognition - is probably going to be the most telling one. Because that was about cutting the island and saying that’s how the succession will be handled, that’s how it will be cut. I suppose these are two dry runs - 1912 and 1916 - for how we handle the big one in 2020.”
He stresses the complexity of history, both for unionists and nationalists.
“I studied what happened with Pearse. i think he was a lunatic. There are other people, however, who fought at the Easter Rising who had what I can only describe as noble ideals...I’ve seen the same thing all over the African continent where people awoke and said ‘No, we want to move away from this imperialism’. I can understand that. But I can also say that Pearse was, in my view, a madman. In his own writings he compares his blood to that of Christ’s. Those are the words of a lunatic. I mean, he was going there deliberately to die. You go into battle to win - even if you know you’re going to die”. And he laughs again.
He doesn’t think any of the centenaries will do anything to change people’s views. “There might be a few people around the fringes who’ll say ‘Ah I get it now!’ Will it make republicans become unionists or unionists become more republican? I doubt it”.
He believes that, as the government in the south should “drive” 2016 commemorations, so the government in Westminster should “drive” centenary commemorations. “Can an Executive that’s made up in the way ours is drive it? I don’t think it can, because of the complexities and differences that exist”.
He doesn’t believe that the centenaries will lead to a fresh version of the Troubles.
“I heard all this before Her Majesty’s visit: ‘Oh, this could spark things off. It’s not the right time.’ It happened, it passed and I think it’s been an acclaimed success. While I don’t know if these centenary commemorations will be on the same par, who knows? But they have the potential to be really positive and they have the potential to be positive marketing tools as well. Why not seize the opportunity?”