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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 June 2007, 19:06 GMT 20:06 UK
If you ask me...
Newton Emerson
By Newton Emerson - BBC Hearts and Minds
A personal view of the week's events

Is Ian Paisley really a unionist?

In an interview with last Saturday's Irish News, he blamed the Troubles on British government betrayal, complained that English politicians know nothing about Irish politics, claimed that Dublin is more generous than London.

Ian Paisley cartoon
Ian Paisley appears more matey with Bertie than Blair

Furthermore, he lauded his relationship with Bertie Ahern because, and I quote, "I am an Ulsterman and he is a southern Irishman. We know how to talk to one another."

The simplest explanation for Paisley's ambivalent Britishness is that he is really an Ulster nationalist.

He's certainly flirted with advocates of an independent Northern Ireland throughout his political career - but these flirtations have never gone further than fond kiss goodnight.

Alternative Ulster

So if Paisley wasn't fighting for a British Ulster or an independent Ulster, what exactly was he fighting for all these years?

To answer that question we must remember that Paisley's religious faith really is the cornerstone of his political world view, however, anachronistic that might seem.

His unionism derives not from Ulster's British identity but from its Protestant, or more specifically Presbyterian, character - and that's where the confusion sets in, because there is a fault line through Ulster's Protestant character, running right back to its separate English and Scottish origins.

Ian Paisley in real life
Is the leader of the DUP and first minister 'going native'?

For hundreds of years it was well understood that there were three tribes in Ulster - the Irish, the English and the Scots - and that the Scots were the wobbly leg on this three-legged stool.

The Scots were with the English during the Plantation, against them during the civil war, with them during the Glorious Revolution, against them during the American Revolution and half-in half-out during the 1798 Rebellion.

Protecting the spoils of the industrial revolution brought the Scots and the English together again in a marriage of convenience that ultimately led to the creation of Northern Ireland itself, which appeared to cement the relationship forever.

Going native

But Paisley's very Scottish anti-Britishness shows that the ancient fault line is still there and still clearly capable of shifting - although if Paisley really is, as the English say, "going native", then it is still only as a native Ulsterman rather than as a native Irishman.

For northern nationalists, this is a counter-intuitive challenge to make the union redundant by making partition work.

Still, judging by last month's election result, southern nationalists have got their heads around that paradox already.

Hearts and Minds can be seen at 2335 BST Thursday, BBC1 Northern Ireland



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