Thursday 23 November 2017

Ian Paisley: My dad prayed regularly with Martin McGuinness... and the first time we met he laughed when I made a quip about balaclavas

Ian Paisley Jnr
Ian Paisley Jnr

Ian Paisely

When Ireland was partitioned and Northern Ireland created, some people didn't give the state much hope of a long and happy existence.

In fact, the plan was to let it run for a few years and eventually it would be subsumed into Eire.

History, of course, tells a different story. But it was at the foundation of the state that the watchword for our survival as a place was actually established.

King George V called on all "Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget, and to join with me in making for the land they love a new era of peace, contentment and goodwill".

That watchword of forbearance and good neighbourliness has at times been buried deep.

By and large the character of the people of Northern Ireland is one that is generally very forgiving. One explanation why, in my view, even in Ulster's darkest days, hope was never really lost and recklessness never gave way to all-out civil war is because that spirit rests deep in the heart of all our people.

As political leaders I believe we have to take that royal benediction seriously and recognise that examples of it can change things.

The current crisis that Northern Ireland faces is regrettable and much time will be spent picking over the rights and wrongs. We face another election and now with the forced retirement of Martin McGuinness because of poor health, a whole new set of issues arise.

McGuinness's decision to retire has correctly promoted much commentary about the character of the man. Is he a statesman? A peacemaker? What about his past?

I had the opportunity to work closely with Martin McGuinness not just when the devolved power-sharing Executive was established but, in fact, I was one of the first DUP members to formally meet him and negotiate with him when it became clear that we could get a deal that would work with republicans. I don't intend here to trace the ins and outs of those events - that is for another time - but it is worth recognising and applauding the remarkable journey that Martin McGuinness, a republican, working-class Catholic from the Bogside, has taken.

Someone else rightly said the measure of any person is not how they start a journey but how they finish. The Bible, too, talks about taking part in a race of life, but it spends most time talking about how to finish.

Clearly, Martin McGuinness at the end of his time in elected office has finished very differently from when he started. The dishevelled teenager prowling the streets of his city is far removed from the man who has been feted by presidents, the Queen and other dignitaries the world over.

The example of St Paul, who was himself the self-confessed Chief of Sinners, is known more for his conversion and subsequent life than for his terrible past.

So, too, the chief of Shinners, if you excuse the pun, should be acknowledged for the change and leadership he has given that has transformed Northern Ireland.

That is why I found it not only honest but easy to publicly say what I have said to him privately: "thank you".

It's not a hard thing to say and, from the public reaction, not only is the right thing to say but the necessary acknowledgement of the transformation in him personally and in the policies he pursued.

No doubt much will be written analysing his past with his present. I am not in denial, and as a person who gasped when he was first appointed to high office because of the memory of his actions I know how our unionist community feels when it looks at the scars on its own people.

But if we have learnt anything we are witness to the fact that our country is in a far better place.

It is at peace, the war is over, the security services are accepted across the community as legitimate, we have the apparatus of stable government within grasp and we have a country that once boasted the highest rates of unemployment now enjoying single digit unemployment accompanied by the highest levels of foreign and direct investment outside of London.

We live in a very different county than the one I grew up in.

Do not fall for the fantasy analysis that this would have happened anyway. These changes were created by the hard work of many people and it is right to acknowledge that one of them was Martin McGuinness.

I have confidence in my unionism and in the strength of our character as people that we can take the easy step of living the example of forbearance and of finding goodwill and contentment at the end of that journey.

I first met Martin McGuinness when my party executive tasked three of its officers to meet the Sinn Fein leadership and thrash out a plan to establish a government.

It was considered the short end of the stick; frankly very few thought it would succeed, but we believed that we had the duty to do it.

I remember arriving at that meeting in Stormont castle. Peter Hain, the then Secretary of State, loaned us his office. I had arrived on my motorbike. Martin McGuinness was already there. I quipped I was the only one wearing a balaclava. He thankfully saw the funny side of it. And the breaking down of one barrier has slowly but surely broken down countless more.

Little did I think then that those early meetings would lead to a formation of a government that most didn't give any hope to. However, my father had the foresight to recognise that this had not happened by chance. He had a responsibility to move on this relationship and to help secure a new chance for our broken country.

I will always be amazed by the energy a man in his 80s put into building a new relationship and, yes, friendship with a man billed his traditional enemy.

Every morning my dad prayed in his police car with his police officers. He did the same each morning in his office. It was just him. I know that he prayed regularly with Martin McGuinness, but more importantly in his private time he prayed for him also.

They say the prayers of a righteous man availeth much and I believe he lived though the revelation of that answered prayer. His opponents characterised the relationship as the Chuckle Brothers. Little did they think that a term meant for harm actually did so much good.

When the public witness the leadership of the country happy and content it reflects on the entire community.

As a country we got a glimpse of what forbearance actually looks like. Perhaps not appreciated for what it was, it however laid a powerful foundation upon which to build.

Throughout that time and indeed after leaving office, Martin McGuinness and my parents kept in contact and shared some views about what was happening in the country. I know at his request my father prayed for Martin's mother.

One of the most moving times was when we were in New York at the home of the president of the Ireland Fund.

She hosted a private dinner for key people in that great city. It was to be an informal opportunity to meet the new Northern Ireland leaders.

They both gave impromptu speeches. You could hear a pin drop and I witnessed hard-nosed businesspeople in tears at the sight of these two very different characters working together.

As a son who greatly loved his father, I appreciated the deep respect and deference Martin McGuinness showed to my father at all times.

They had difficulty agreeing important matters, but those difficulties were met in a spirit of finding a solution and of confounding the opinions of others.

I saw them shake hands when people said it wouldn't happen, just as they said a republican would never shake hands with the Queen. But he did.

As a junior minister, jointly appointed, I had to work with the Deputy First Minister and, frankly, I never had a single cross word about the difficulties we encountered on policy.

He asked to see me once on my own to indicate to me his opposition to something I had said about a policy. His remarks were made in private and were accepted.

It is those small steps that allow us to remember that no matter how opposed we are to our political opponents they are the legitimate representatives of a section of our people as we are the legitimate representatives of another section.

If we hate our opponents we are saying to a part of our own people, 'we hate you'.

That hatred must be overcome by forbearance and the stretching out of our hand in peace to bring about a better place.

That is not to play down the challenges of policy and direction that we face, but if we can face them respecting each other we will have a far greater chance of success.

Belfast Telegraph

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