Tag Archives: Paisley

Passionate Intensity

I’m not a poetic soul, but a few poems have stuck in my head over the years. One of the first was William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” For a kid who was brought up Catholic and always preferred readings from the condensed strangeness that is the Book of Revelations, Yeats’ poem seemed like a distillation and perfection of that theme. Even so, it featured one couplet that my understanding stumbled over.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

As a kid, that never made much sense. How could you be the best if you lacked all conviction? How could passionate intensity be a bad thing? The context of the rest of the poem didn’t help much, revolving as it did around a world falling apart and seeming to approach some kind of apocalypse. Maybe I just needed to mature a bit and learn more about the world, but the meaning of that couplet seems all too clear in these days, when the world is indeed falling apart and the future is looking darker than it has in a long time.

We’re surrounded by people who are full of passionate intensity these days. You see them at podiums, hear them declaiming the facts that they know, endure their scorn whenever you try to engage or argue with them. It’s the age of Trump, but he’s just the most visible modern version of a long-standing situation. Those of us from Northern Ireland will be just as familiar with Ian Paisley, whose granite-cold certainty admitted of no doubt and swept along many others in its wake.

Yeats’ poem is endlessly quoted because it’s endlessly applicable. Within the poem itself, it looked back to the devastation of the First World War, observed the bitterness of the Irish War of Independence, and looked forward to the horrors of the Irish Civil War and the Second World War to come. It seems prophetic because of what came after it was written, but it also simply records what always happens, and the couplet above is central to that.

The passionate certainty of those like Trump and Paisley comes from the fact that they rest their beliefs on certainties of their own. In Trump’s case, his certainty is that he is never wrong and never fails. Paisley’s was his own fundamentalist reading of the bible. If you’re certain, no time needs to be wasted in reflecting on the rightness of your actions: you have a launching point and a direction to travel in. Moreover, others will see your certainty and envy it, seeing in you someone to emulate and to follow. In your certainty, their own doubts will dissolve, or at least be forgotten about. They can forsake their own intellectual work in favour of having answers provided from someone who presents themselves as having them all.

What of Yeats’ “the best,” who lack all conviction, then? If the worst are those who never doubt themselves, the best are those who have spent large portions of their lives examining their own actions, developing a habit of doubt that haunts and slows them. They rarely share the dynamism of the worst, and without gifts of rhetoric or charisma, they struggle to convey just why it’s a good thing to question and to understand. In the world we now live in, “experts” are dismissed when their carefully constructed logic crashes up against dearly-held certainties.

Of course, this is a simplification. The world is complex, and not all of those who interrogate their beliefs are paralysed by doubt.

We’ve been lucky until quite recently, living in the shadow of the twentieth century’s horrors. We’ve had living reminders of the damage that Yeats’ “worst” can do, of what handing over our doubts and fears to those who seem utterly certain of their rightness will lead to. Having a strong public education system helps with that too—the world is massively complex, not least in how the people within it interact, but giving people the tools to decipher it for themselves lets them make an informed decision as to whether they will go along with others’ certainties.

Amazingly, I managed to get all the way through that without mentioning Brexit. Draw your own conclusions from that—or maybe I’ll return to that particular collision of dreadful certainty and earnest doubt at a later date.

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Paisley and Legacy

That Paisley documentary, should you wish to delve into his mind.

So Ian Paisley is dead, as of a few days ago. I’m no more inclined to dance on his grave than I am to shed a tear at his passing, but the injunction not to speak ill of the dead mostly exists to preserve the feelings of the deceased’s loved ones, none of whom I know, nor are they ever likely to pay heed to anything I say. So some recollections might be in order.

When I was growing up in Northern Ireland, Ian Paisley was a constant presence. Back then he was a fringe character, albeit the most prominent one of his kind. To a child old enough to pay attention to the news but not old enough to understand the tangled truths and lies at the heart of the Northern Irish situation, there was something immediately appealing about this shouty man, spouting certainties at the top of his lungs wherever the lines between communities at war were in danger of becoming blurred.

The more understanding I gained, the more the limitations of his worldview became evident. Paisley was a complex man, even an exceptionally intelligent one, but those complexities were hammered flat by his fundamentalist worldview. Those he was close to remember him as warm, cordial figure, but one suspects that such warmth only extended to those who existed as human beings in his own eyes. Someone who could say that Catholics “breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin” had placed strict limits on his empathy.

In this, he was heir to centuries of anti-Catholic, biblical tradition arising from his Ulster Scots background, owning no authority save that of the bible. This is a man, after all, who founded his own church and his own political party. The common joke back in the Troubles was that Paisley had finally consented to a power-sharing agreement: with God. His famous heckling of Pope John Paul II suggested that he didn’t see him so much as a man as he did a figure of mythic significance, one that he was locked in war with.

All the stranger then that he executed an almost complete volte-face in his latter days. From being the most intransigent figure of the Troubles, he (once his party were in a position to take power) suddenly became open not just to power sharing, but to power-sharing with Sinn Fein, which he was more apt to call Sinn Fein/IRA. Which is either a breathtaking acceptance of the limitations of the principles he’d adhered to for decades, or an act of equally breathtaking hypocrisy.

That there were plenty willing to take the latter view may be seen in the fact that both his church and his party eventually rejected him. The former as soon as he took up that leadership role, the latter as soon as their grip on the reins of power was firm enough that they could afford to jettison their non-political anachronism of a founder.

As much as the Unionists may have had to hold their nose on going into government with Sinn Fein though, the same may have been true in reverse. His Damascene conversion on the road to government notwithstanding, Paisley was as responsible as anyone for generating the atmosphere of hatred and suspicion that drove the Troubles through three decades of murder. He’s gone to his grave with blood on his hands and no more willing or able to admit his culpability than Martin McGuinness or Gerry Adams have ever been.

His decision, in what turned out to be his last year, to participate in a tell-all documentary, stands now as a final preacher’s performance, a spouting of the truth as he saw it from the mountaintop. Perhaps even to make clear that the twists and turns of his own life could be looked back upon as a straight road, laid out according to his principles. If so, there were many lives bulldozed to make way for it.