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Why should we praise a prodigal son who did so much damage?




The late Ian Paisley

The late Ian Paisley



The death of Ian Paisley revealed that the tradition of not speaking ill of the dead is not universal.

While political leaders felt obliged to use euphemisms like "divisive" to characterise the old bigot and some praised his late conversion to "peace-making", plenty of others felt free to acknowledge that he was a horrible man whose hate filled speeches were the genesis of, and unnecessarily prolonged, the Troubles.

Perhaps the most peculiar praise came from Martin McGuinness who declared that he had lost a "friend" and "paid tribute" to the work he did building political agreement. I suppose some people might think this was a rather statesmanlike response to Paisley's death.

There's a different interpretation one could make of this eagerness to praise latter day "peace-makers". It's just one prodigal son making the case for another.

It's hardly surprising that those who were the cause of death, injury and misery have an interest in the reputational redemption of those who came late to the table.

The likes of Gerry Adams and McGuinness got in there earlier than Paisley, but some of us won't forget we wouldn't have needed a peace process if they hadn't existed in the first place.


I never bought into the prodigal son parable you see. I always sided with the son who stayed at home. He did the right thing from the start, so why wasn't he acknowledged with a fatted calf?

Instead, the wastrel brother went off, spent the loot and then came home to scab.

I wouldn't have let him starve; the door would always be open in my home. But throwing a party for him? No.

There were plenty of decent people in Northern Ireland who whilst suffering injustice never resorted to violence and indeed, knew that violence made a solution less, not more likely.

They were discriminated against, beaten up, arrested and endured just as much as those who became terrorists. That makes them the heroes, not the converts.

But I suppose if you're an Adams or a McGuinness you've got an eye on your own legacy.

While "peace-makers" are all the rage now, it's in their interests to ensure that those who committed the gravest crimes are treated kindly by posterity.

The prodigal son club must perpetuate the narrative that the bravery was all on their side.

As for Paisley, he was no peace maker. In 2006 he was the last one in, eight years after the Good Friday Agreement. His disgusting speeches ("They breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin" he said of Catholics) encouraged violence.


Unlike say, Gusty Spence who showed genuine regret, Paisley never acknowledged the destructive role he played in the North. When he eventually agreed to share power, I don't think peace was the issue.

I often quote a relation of my father's from south Armagh. When we asked him in the early 90s if he thought there would ever be peace, he replied: "When Sinn Fein has destroyed the SDLP and the DUP has destroyed the UUP, Paisley and Adams will sit down and carve up power between them."

It's a reductionist way of looking at the peace process but that's exactly what happened.

The DUP opposed every version of power sharing until they became the largest unionist political party.

As with Sinn Fein, only when they were in a position to take power themselves, did they agree to share it.

Don't be fooled by these prodigal sons trying to save themselves.