Paisley's story is one of chances lost and rare opportunities missed
WHAT thoughts now rummage deep in the canyons of his mind? Inexorably the old man moves from the autumn to his winter years. His 87th birthday has come and gone. Now the future is inevitably enwrapped with the past.
Ian Paisley looked down all his days in a kind of end-of-the-line BBC documentary this week.
It was a most insightful programme – and a very sad one. When he had told his life story as he saw it, there was an overwhelming feeling of chances lost, of once in a lifetime opportunities missed in times that will be no more. For Ian Paisley, things could have been so different.
Perhaps the biggest sign of his waning powers is that the booming voice is no more. At times the passions of old came to the surface and the innate inclination to shout down those who would disagree with him resurrected itself. But to no avail. The once-raging vocal chords can no longer respond to primal instinct.
Yet as with many old men who remain convinced they were pivotal in the time and tide of history, Big Ian is anxious that his place in the great scheme of things will be as he would see it.
Critics might charge that his appearance on the programme was a flailing attempt at revisionism. He is obviously worried about posterity – and about his legacy.
It was one last throw of the dice. He was clearly determined to show that behind all the demagoguery, all the raging tirades against Catholics and Catholicism, there really lurked the heartbeat of a reasonable man.
Footage shown on the programme was a reminder, once again, of how hate-filled were those terrible days, as year after relentless year Northern Ireland's blood-soaked nightmare went on and on and on.
There were images of Paisley from as far back as the late Fifties and early Sixties, raging against threats, real and imagined, which he warned were coming from the church of Rome. From the outset the language was that of the extremist, designed to provoke fervour and fear in the atavistic subconscious of Ulster Protestantism at the time.
Of course, neither Paisley nor anybody else could have imagined that all this careless language would help push things further and further towards the abyss. Old dormant hatreds and insecurities on both sides would all too soon simmer to the surface and seek an outlet by way of the bomb and the bullet.
The voices of moderation were slowly drowned out. For far too long Paisley's bellowing could be heard, determined to stifle any progress towards the middle ground.
Yet his efforts on this programme to portray a born-again image of being some sort of conciliator, provoked from him some remarkable statements. He even went so far as to suggest that the old Stormont-led form of government was intrinsically unjust.
"The whole system was wrong. It wasn't one man, one vote. That's no way to run a country,'' he said in what was surely the most unlikely comment ever made by Ian Paisley.
The pity is that he never said anything of that ilk during the dark days of the Troubles. If only the most powerful and strident voice in Ulster Protestantism had conceded such a point when time and circumstance most demanded it, might things have turned out much differently?
Could it have been that such a wider view of the problem, coming from such an influential source, might have eased in much earlier a new powersharing concept in the North? If the core requirements of the civil rights marchers in 1969 had been embraced, would history have taken a different turn?
He also conceded there had been discrimination against Catholics in housing and jobs, suggesting that "other forces'' were at fault. "They set family against family and friend against friend,'' he remarked in a wistful reverie.
Yet when it came to the religious vitriol for which he became infamous, he choose to plead forgetfulness. "The Romanish man of sin is now in hell,'' he is reported to have said when Pope John XXIII died. "I don't know whether I said that or not,'' he replied.
"Catholics breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin,'' was another of his alleged statements about which he was reminded. He denied ever making such a comment.
But apart from religion, the drama of politics still has an iron grip on his soul. Both he and his wife made no secret of their bitterness against one-time DUP colleagues Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds. They believe they conspired to oust him as party leader. He is not alone among ageing politicians who can neither forgive not forget those they feel ended their careers.
But the real tragedy for Ian Paisley – as with too many Protestant and Catholic fundamentalists over the decades – was his belief that his was the only righteous way. Their particular God could never accept there just might be another way of seeing the world and all its mysteries.