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Great Titan left divided legacy

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Dr Ian Paisley pictured in his Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church in Belfast. Dr Paisley died on September 12. Photo: Harrison Photography

Dr Ian Paisley pictured in his Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church in Belfast. Dr Paisley died on September 12. Photo: Harrison Photography

John Harrison/Harrison Photograp

Dr Ian Paisley pictured in his Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church in Belfast. Dr Paisley died on September 12. Photo: Harrison Photography

In life and in politics it is not where you start, but where you finish that really counts. That certainly was the case with Ian Paisley. The first half century of his remarkable political and religious career was not auspicious. Yet, despite all of his grave flaws, snowball-throwing buffoonery and unhappy actions, Dr Paisley evolved into one of the titans of the oft-troubled, but sometime inspirational story of an island that has been shared so uneasily by two very similar tribes.

In the case of Dr Paisley, that status is the direct consequence of those final years of his political career where, having spent decades as the agitated great wrecker of dreams about the rhyming of hope and history, Mr Paisley reinvented himself as the great conciliator. In taking this step, all aspects of his astonishingly full life and times came together in the manner of a Shakespearean drama where that which appears to be utterly diverse and contradictory is unified by the last act.

The late Brian Lenihan Snr once famously dismissed the 'hobgoblin of consistency' as being something that could only attract the limited mind. The same imp would certainly struggle with Mr Paisley's twists and turns, from the feckless sectarian viciousness of his earlier career to his belated reinvention as one of the 'Chuckle Brothers' with Martin McGuinness. However, the evolution of this relationship after Dr Paisley's dalliance with 'the shadow of death' is less surprising than we might think.

Despite their political differences, in terms of psychology they were astonishingly similar. Both met under another shadow of having sent out young men to die. In Dr Paisley's case, at least the gunpowder was only rhetorical. But, for many decades in his career, like McGuinness, the former DUP leader did little that was good or ennobling. During that long Cold War, Mr Paisley was perceived by many in the outside world as being some mad pastor who wove his political profits out of the demagoguery of hysteria and fear. For many his more appropriate theatre would have been 19th Century England. Others believed the religious wars from several centuries earlier was a more appropriate metier. Yet, significantly, the private Paisley was a warm-hearted resolutely non-sectarian individual.

It is unfortunate that it took until his seventh decade to fashion a match between the private and public persona. And while the world is full of kind words now, it would be remiss not to note that despite the final great transformation, if politics was just, David Trimble and Seamus Mallon would still be leading the Northern Executive. However the world is not fair and we must make do with what we have. Within this context, however, we should still properly value the leap of faith, where two men rose above their flawed past to take the risky path of seeking a better future for a citizenry who had been more often than not misled rather than led.

In doing so, Dr Paisley was transformed into a political Titan whose legacy, despite all that has gone before, consists of a living parable about the eternal possibility of redemption through acts of good authority. It is a lesson that our current coalition, which after many avoidable failures is seeking a better direction than the path it has followed, would do well to consider. Many mistakes may have been made since they took office in 2011, but as Mr Paisley's own life showed, poor beginnings do not rule out the possibility of happy endings.

Sunday Independent