| 14.2°C Dublin

Brush with death turned him from conflict and on to the path of compromise

Close

Pictured at Stormont Castle in 2008 were President George W Bush with Rev Ian Paisley Former First Minister of Northern Ireland.

Pictured at Stormont Castle in 2008 were President George W Bush with Rev Ian Paisley Former First Minister of Northern Ireland.

Pictured at Stormont Castle in 2008 were President George W Bush with Rev Ian Paisley Former First Minister of Northern Ireland.

Some say religion and politics should not mix. But one cannot fully understand Ian Paisley without understanding biblical tradition from which he sprang. Calculation, religious conviction and the changed perception of paramilitarism after 9/11, explain why Dr Ian Paisley eventually became 'Dr Yes'

As he approached the end of his life, Ian Paisley really wanted to be the man who was seen to have brought an end to Troubles in the North.

Not long before the eventual breakthrough on the issues of policing and power sharing, Ian Paisley suffered a serious illness. He told Tony Blair, after he had recovered, that he had recently had a "near meeting with his Maker" and added that he did not want to end his life remembered as an old man saying no to every proposal that might bring a settlement.

He struck the same conciliatory tone in his final speech to the House of Commons. He said then that one must face the fact that the people of the North are diverse, politically and religiously, and, as such, must find a way of living together. They were not a "hard people", but a "caring and a loving people". He recalled that, in his youth, his province was a much more neighbourly place than it later became. Calm and peace were now being restored, he said, and the day would come, although he "might not live to see it", when the Troubles would be forgotten.

How can this transformation of a man, who stirred up so much animosity for over 30 years, be explained?

How did someone who had campaigned for the rejection of the Good Friday Agreement in the referendum of 1998 come to take office as First Minister under the same Agreement, nine years later?

Of course, there was an element of political calculation. Once his party became the largest Unionist party, compromise was more attractive that it would have been if David Trimble were to be the principal beneficiary. Similar calculations explained Sinn Fein's change of heart, once they became the biggest nationalist party. But I believe part of the explanation lies in Ian Paisley's recognition of his own mortality, and in an evolution his own evangelical Protestant faith.

Long before he finally accepted the Good Friday Agreement, he had already modified his attitudes towards Catholics. For example, he had noisily denounced Pope John Paul as an "Anti Christ" in the European Parliament in 1988. But when the same Pope died in 2005, his words were warm and conciliatory, and very different from the bitter words he had spoken on the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963 .

How might such a theological evolution have come about? While living in the United States, I was told that President George W Bush played a part in convincing Dr Paisley that there was a biblical justification for accepting an accommodation with nationalists. President Bush was someone who read the Bible every day, and could find the right authority there for a change of political course .

Ian Paisley's father, James Paisley, was Baptist minister, and a signatory of Edward Carson's Ulster Covenant. Ian, born in 1926, followed him into religious ministry and trained in a school for evangelical ministers in Wales.

Returning to the North, he quickly became involved in politics. Before founding his own party, he was a member of an organisation known as the National Union of Protestants, headed by the Stormont MP Norman Porter. In 1966, he founded his own newspaper, the Protestant Telegraph, and the Protestant Unionist party, the precursor of the DUP.

In this phase of his career, he was vigorously anti-Catholic, in both the political and the religious sense. Yet, even then, he always was a good constituency MP in the service of his Catholic, as well as his Protestant, constituents in north Antrim.

He was against any involvement of the Irish state in the governance of the North, and this was why he opposed the Anglo Irish Agreement. But he was not averse to an internal settlement with nationalists within the North itself. His reasoning here was one sided. Just as his unionist constituents would feel exposed and insecure in any arrangement that had no British dimension, northern nationalists felt even more exposed and insecure in any arrangement that lacked an Irish dimension.

On other matters he was more clear sighted. He once said that it would be "naive to take the IRA at its word". Many chose, deliberately, to be naive about the IRA, arguing mistakenly that this served the cause of peace. Two developments changed the argument.

The terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001 utterly changed the attitude of Irish-Americans to all paramilitary organisations. And the Northern Bank raid, and sundry other IRA atrocities, like the McCartney murder, changed Irish nationalist and liberal opinion. Even the IRA itself realised its previous position on arms decommissioning was untenable. On decommissioning, Mr Paisley could justly claim that others came around to his point of view, not the other way around.

When, in 2007, he eventually took office as First Minister, he was 81 of age. When he retired as a member of the House of Commons, he was the oldest MP there. I last met him when, as First Minister, he visited Washington to promote investment in the North in the company of his Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness. What struck me at the time was the genuine affection there seemed to be between the two men, although I do not think they had got around to shaking hands by then. If, indeed, they ever did!

Like a lot of Irish politicians before him, he tried out a lot of wrong paths, before he eventually found the right one. But by the time he did find that right path, he knew for sure that he could bring his people with him. That is why he ended his long career on a high note.

John Bruton was Taoiseach from 1994 to 1997

Irish Independent