Ian Paisley: A man of many paradoxes but always open to political accommodation
It is a grim irony that Ian Paisley has died in the week that both Unionist and Nationalist party leaders in Northern Ireland have described the current Stormont power sharing arrangement as unworkable and no longer fit for purpose.
A man with a strong but often bitter sense of humour, Paisley would have seen the current Northern impasse as proof that a solution was never going to be easy and that the two sides in the North are ultimately irreconcilable.
However, in his later years, Paisley converted to the idea that a peaceful settlement was possible and could at least pacify, if not satisfy, the warring parties.
But he took time to sign up for such conflict resolution and for decades the Reverend Paisley was Dr No, who seemed to reject all attempts at meaningful accommodation.
He famously rejected the Sunningdale agreement of 1973, which was an early pre-cursor of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which he also rejected.
However, although he rejected the latter, which grew out of the historic IRA ceasefire of 1994, and involved intensive efforts of the British, Irish and US Governments, it was clear that he and his party were working their way towards acceptance of the deal. Why wouldn’t they? The North was securely part of the United Kingdom, the IRA had stopped their violence and, best of all, Paisley’s party was taking over Unionism.
In fact, critics would say that Paisley was merely waiting for the day when his party, through rhetoric and rejection, destroyed the moderate Ulster Unionist and took their place. And that then, content to be top dog, he would take their place, and sit at a table that included Gerry Adams and the former IRA.
This is true, but it too easily dismisses the genuine journey that Paisley made towards peace.
He has spoken about a deep Christianity informing this decision. He was also influenced by the relative ‘withdrawal’ of the Irish Government. His great fear was of a Dublin take-over but as this receded, he was content to share power with Northern nationalists.
A Dublin role was what caused Paisley to throw snowballs at Sean Lemass when he visited the North in the mid-60s, and then a few years later what caused him to oppose the Civil rights demands of Northern Catholics.
He saw the latter as a front for radicals and the IRA – and in some respects it was – but his opposition, and his bellowing voice on TV, appeared tribal, unreasonable and sectarian.
In fact, Paisley was quite a warm and fair minded man, who was proud of the good reputation he had among his Catholic constituents in Antrim. But he was fervently Protestant and genuinely saw-Catholicism as decadent and Godless, in a way that now seems antiquated and offensive.
He was a man of paradoxes: devoted to the Queen, he was actually quite anti-British in a strange way and always distrustful of Westminster. Former Irish Diplomats have told me how they met a man who, despite his reputation, was always open to a political accommodation.
It is often forgotten that he visited Dublin for peace talks, years before the IRA ceasefire of 1994.
In the end, Paisley made the journey to the centre and to an extraordinary accommodation, much to the relief of everybody. Better to have the extremes inside such an agreement than on the outside, creating havoc.
Those who blame him for prolonging the conflict should always remember: there are plenty more like Paisley in Ulster, and worse. In fact, it is often said that the wily preacher operated like a pressure cooker, bringing his people out on the streets but making sure to bring them home again.
Though he may have stoked the conflict at the start, he also kept the lid of what could have been much worse outbreaks of violence later and for that we should all be grateful.