He’s History

There is a grim monotony and convention about the tributes being paid to Ian Paisley after announcement of his intention to resign. Nearly all assessments I have read are concerned with what ‘history’ will have to say about him.

For instance:

As Ian Paisley prepares to bow out, ex-prime minister Tony Blair summed him up best – the man most famous for saying ‘no’ will go down in history as the man who said ‘yes’.

There are loads more, go looking for them because I can’t be bothered.

There is something hopelessly dull about this way of talking about how people will be remembered in the future.  It requires a rather flat and conservative conception of history, as though history itself were a mere pantheon of remarkable personalities, of the manner parodied by Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Of course, a large part of it is down to the fact that there isn’t much else to say about people once it’s clear that they’re packing in whatever it was that made them important in the first place. The boring truth is that every single person who ever carried out a role will stop doing it at some point. So Paisley’s resignation is all over the news, but did people expect him to still be First Minister in 2038?

I digress a bit. To dwell a little longer on this idea of history as a procession of prominent personalities: it seems to me that when we talk about history in this way, we’re ascribing a sort of magical set of powers to these personalities, as though what they did only they could have done, and if they hadn’t done what they did, then things would have taken a radically different course. In reality, these personalities are the creations of other people. Whether one is a despot or a radical democrat, one’s prominence is maintained only by the support and collaboration of others. People identified as figureheads, movement leaders and so on don’t achieve this status by sheer charisma and tenacity, however much they and people like them would like to convince you otherwise as they try to earn an extra few quid speaking at management seminars. They get where they are by fulfilling a need in other people – which could be the need to worship a demi-god or a father figure, or to loathe and fear a demonic enemy, or simply a reasonable requirement for someone to speak and act on your behalf. The needs are a product of material reality, not divine breath.

The other side to this is the idea that, whatever the material circumstances, ‘history’ – how the past is remembered – will always remain the same, regardless of people’s priorities, where they live, their own personal and national histories. It is assumed that Ian Paisley will go down in British and Irish history as having performed some function or other. But that presupposes that there will always be such a thing as British and Irish history, or such a thing as Northern Ireland. I am not implying that these isles are due to be overrun by conquering armies from somewhere else at some point soon, with history faculties and publishing houses burnt to the ground. Rather, I am raising the possibility that, at some stage, hardly anyone will care anymore who Ian Paisley is, or was. And the people who do try to remember him will do so in line with their own interests, whatever these might be.

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