Saturday 7 December 2019

The bigot who became a peacemaker: the legacy of Ian Paisley

Ian Paisley was a divisive figure but a powerful speaker during his heyday in the North.
Ian Paisley was a divisive figure but a powerful speaker during his heyday in the North.

ACROSS the entire island of Ireland, Ian Paisley was a household name for six decades, known to people of all generations everywhere. He was one of those rare people for whom just a first name sufficed to win recognition.

For devoted supporters he was "the big man" or "the good doctor". For many detractors he was "Doctor No" or "mister not-an-inch". He was one of the most turbulent, persistent and divisive people in Irish public life who belatedly embraced power-sharing with his lifelong sworn enemies.

There were many Ian Paisleys. There was the devoted family man, father and grandfather. There was the firebrand evangelical preacher and successful church founder. There was the tireless charismatic politician elected to parliaments in Belfast, London and Strasbourg.

The common thread in all of the things that comprised Ian Paisley was the radical unionist believer who steadfastly opposed anything he saw as weakening the link between the North and Britain. His expressions of loyalty to "the union" at best puzzled and bemused fellow British citizens - at worst it irritated and embarrassed them.

Mr Paisley's legacy was such that yesterday the Irish people's innate reluctance to speak ill of the dead was at the margins called into question. Carefully-worded tributes were tinged with an implicit or even explicit suspension of judgement for the present. Others felt it would be dishonest not to speak some harsh words of judgement earlier rather than later.

Many struggles characterised the life of this man, born in Armagh, and who made his home and later his political power base, in Ballymena, Co Antrim. He struggled with great success to follow in his father's footsteps as a clergyman of conviction who founded his own Free Presbyterian Church.

In politics he challenged the sometimes smug leaders of the Unionist Party who often neglected their supporters. Ultimately, he would supplant them to lead unionism, moving from the fringe to the centre.

He struggled to oppose any role for Dublin in the politics of the North and he often clamoured that London was ready to betray Northern loyalists.

As the Troubles intensified he became a very divisive figure who at one time had links to paramilitary loyalism. For many, his intemperate language urged innocent young men to ruinous acts of violence. He opposed many attempts to build political compromise right up to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

By his own words, his decision in 2007 to share power with Sinn Fein was incredible even to his slightly younger self. His total volte face left many unanswered questions about his obdurate intransigence of earlier decades.

The dilemma posed by the passing of Ian Paisley was whether to summate him as someone who frustrated efforts to find a lasting settlement to end the decades of killing in the North, or deem his legacy as that of a man of compromise and peace.

Others might put the question more bluntly: how grateful should we be that one who blocked peace for so long finally and totally embraced it? The answer will depend on a person's own experience and beliefs and for now the majority must wait for history to judge.

Yet we can safely say that Ian Paisley was a force of nature who marked the politics of these islands from the 1960s, to the present day, and into the future. His passing heralds the end of an era, many features of which we sincerely hope will never, ever, be repeated.

Our sympathies go to his family, friends and many fervent supporters. May he rest in peace.

Irish Independent

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