By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)
It’s 40 years since the self-styled UVF murdered Peter Ward in the Malvern Arms off the Shankill Road - June 26 1966. The next day the victim of one of the gang’s earlier attacks, Matilda Gould, a 77-year-old Protestant widow, died of injuries she received when a petrol bomb meant for a Catholic-owned pub adjacent to her house exploded in her hallway. On June 11 the same gang had shot John Scullion dead.
It was only when his body was exhumed on June 22 that an autopsy revealed he had been shot.
In May the Shankill Road gang who described themselves as ‘heavily-armed Protestants’ had issued a statement declaring war against ‘the IRA and its splinter groups’.
No-one paid any attention. It had to be a hoax, hadn’t it?
After all, there was no IRA.
The republican movement had formally abandoned its border campaign in 1962 and was moving towards political action through tenants’ associations, housing committees, demonstrations and protest marches.
That’s what you did in the 1960s.
The police quickly rounded up Gusty Spence’s infamous murder gang and the ring leaders got life. They were universally condemned by the unionist media and politicians. No-one believed a word of the drivel about ‘Ulster in danger’, ‘republicans on the march’, ‘the end is nigh’ and so on.
No-one that is, except the thousands of dupes who believed 40-year-old Ian Paisley who was clearly convinced that ‘Ulster’ was on its way to hell in a handcart.
Not only were there republicans lurking in every crevice only slavering to enslave Protestants but even the Presbyterian Church could not be trusted because of its ‘Romeward trend’. The whole world, including the new British Labour government, was agin the poor wee ‘sick counties’.
It was all a mirage, a myth, an invention of his fevered imagination. The Unionist Party dismissed Paisley as a noisy embarrassment. The media treated him as a buffoon. Students, including Catholic students, turned up to his Ulster Hall rallies for a good laugh. It was great entertainment, free too.
Tragically however, scores of young loyalists at those same rallies took him at his word, though he has always denied his words inflamed anyone. It has all changed now of course. Gusty Spence was openly advocating a ceasefire from 1977 on. The UVF and UDA both repudiate Paisley and openly laugh at his demagoguery.
The last time any of them took him seriously was 20 years ago in 1986 when he threatened dire things to defeat the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Anybody remember his ‘day of action’ in March that year?
To the paramilitaries he is the grand old Duke of York who marched them up to the top of the hill - and marched them down again. The loyalist paramilitaries have changed.
They are looking for their pensions if they weren’t in the UDR or RUC. The IRA has formally stood down from active service.
The nationalist electorate in the north has endorsed Sinn Féin’s move into politics over the last decade or so.
Sadly one thing has not changed - Paisley. His speech to the Independent Orange Order on July 12 could have been written 40 years ago. He is still out there smiting imaginary enemies, calling for blood sacrifice - “Liberty can only be obtained at a stupendous price. That price is the irreplaceable coin of human bodies and blood”. Seriously? And where does the dire threat come from? Needless to say, an IRA almost exactly similar to the one he was railing against 40 odd years ago, one which is no threat to anyone. Doesn’t matter. For Paisley “there is no discharge in this war”. What war? The same one in his mind as was in his mind all those years ago. His wild rhetoric caused consternation among those amusingly described by some commentators as the ‘modernisers’ in his party. They are the ones slightly to the right of David Trimble. People speculate whether Paisley’s message on July 12 was to the Irish government, republicans or the modernisers. That’s to give him credit for having a political strategy. The truth is that Paisley at 80 is the same man as Paisley at 40, a politician devoid of political thought who trades on the fears of gullible people.