Ian Paisley was a remarkable man and his journey in political life is a lesson to all observers of the trade. Paisley was a product of the times he lived in. For many it was remarkable that a man who had shown such bigotry and deep prejudice would eventually sit beside Martin McGuinness and share power with Sinn Fein, but the reality was that they had always needed each other.
The IRA was a brutal and merciless organisation responsible for some of the most heinous crimes ever committed on this island However, the actions of the IRA allowed Ian Paisley to find a ready audience for his message. What those of us in the south saw as bigotry, his supporters saw as a righteous and fearless voice against the IRA and encroaching Catholicism. Hi uncompromising message was well received by those who felt most under threat by the IRA campaign. He always needed their actions to find new followers.
On the other side Paisley was also one of the main generators of sympathy towards the IRA in the south. With his talk of ‘popery’ and the evils of Catholicism, his uncompromising and often insensitive attitude to anyone in the Republic. His lack of respect for the Irish state, and his more unusual religious beliefs such as the idea that dancing, even line dancing, was evil. Paisley ensured that people were genuinely afraid of what would happen in Northern Ireland to any catholic should he be left to his own devices. When the IRA sought to justify its arguments and drum up support among threatened communities they needed to look no further than the speeches of Ian Paisley.
For many people in the republic Paisley was a hate figure. A completely unreasonable man. While people felt they might be able to understand someone like David Trimble there was a genuine feeling that talking to Paisley was a waste of time. Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s I cannot recall anyone ever suggesting that Paisley could be an instrument of peace. He opposed everything and he opposed it brilliantly. Paisley had a gift; he was one of the greatest orators of his generation. He was decisive and confident at every juncture. Anyone who listened to him speak had to admit that he could deliver his message with a power and conviction that was unequalled by other political leaders.
People in the republic just grew up with the idea that Paisley hated us and we in turn had to hate him. I only once remember a difference in this narrative. It was in 1994 in Abbeyshrule in Longford, when Albert Reynolds was surrounded by a number of people discussing events in the north and they were all in agreement that nothing could be done with Paisley and the only hope would be that people forgot him and moved on. Reynolds, hands in his overcoat, said ‘I don’t know, the same man knows a good deal, but it’s never been up to him, it’s never been his choice.’
I and many other disagreed at the time. Paisley had a choice on Sunningdale, but brought it down. He had a choice on the Anglo Irish Agreement and sought only to oppose it. Right throughout the entire peace process Paisley seemed a figure consumed by such religious and political hatred that he could see no good in anyone. As the Good Friday agreement was being signed and former loyalist paramilitary figures such as David Ervine were getting ready to sign, it really seemed that history was going to leave Paisley behind. Even unionists were describing him as a ‘dinosaur’. It seemed that he would never change.
The following years should be studied carefully however. Paisley was above all a politician. Anyone who today is looking at the parties and people espousing uncompromising positions on government and policy should look at Ian Paisley as proof positive that when faced with the cold hard reality of government , everyone changes. Paisley continued his opposition to everything and by doing so played his politics well. He completely undermined David Trimble and sucked away the support base of the UUP. In the post agreement environment, we came to see an IRA that had more internal personnel problems and more inflexibility than a public sector union. The IRA were incapable of moving forward at speed and grasping the new reality and this delay on policing, on decommissioning and on co-operation with investigations yet again gave Ian Paisley a lifeline.
It was only when it was clear that Ian Paisley was now the top dog in Unionism, that the DUP was now the major political force and that everyone’s future now rested with them that Ian Paisley seemed to change. There was nowhere left to hide. Paisley, for all the faults we in the south attributed to him, was a man who cared deeply about the community he came from. He knew the importance of jobs, welfare, education and health policies when all the rhetoric was left aside. When the ultimate decision was his and his alone, Paisley could not destroy the peace process and refuse to work in conjunction with Sinn Fein. To do so would have plunged Northern Ireland and its people into a bloody and miserable future and Paisley would not do that. There was no one else to blame, no one else to undermine, it was down to him.
Ian Paisley ended his days as a figure who gained much respect in Northern Ireland and indeed in the republic. South of the border people took an interest in him and saw him as a colourful and respected politician, with whom they might not always agree but who was not altogether bad either. In doing so he became instrumental in healing wounds and divisions on the island.
In time many may dismiss his younger days and speeches as the impetuosity of a man who had not yet seen reason. No doubt for sometime to come it is the Ian Paisley of his later years that we will remember. However, no matter how you viewed him, he was a powerful ally, a courageous leader or a worthy opponent and voice to be feared. There is much we still don’t understand about him, but it’s safe to say he made his peace with the people before he left and his skill as an orator and politician will live long in the memory. History will take some time to finally decide on his true legacy.