News has broken today of the death of Reverend Ian Paisley, former First Minister of Northern Ireland, founder of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster and former head of the Democratic Unionist Party.
And that is about as much as anyone on this island will be able to agree on.
Paisley’s legacy is…
When we consider the life and times of Ian Paisley we must first Jesus Christ where do I even start?
Eulogies of people like Paisley are a tricky thing. You have to be truthful, but, at the same time lambasting an 88 year old man whose bones have not even been laid to rest is neither brave nor decent. I suppose all you can do is try to be fair. So, here it is.
For the majority of his life, Ian Paisley was not a particularly nice man.
He leaves behind friends and family who he dearly loved and who dearly loved him. But the fact remains that if you were Catholic or gay and living in Northern Ireland in the latter half of the twentieth century your life was impacted by this man, and almost certainly for the worse. I would even argue that in his dogged opposition for most of his career to any form of concession or rapprochement with the Catholic minority he must bear some blame for the Troubles dragging on as long as they did.
He counter-protested civil rights marches. He gave incendiary speeches where he would name addresses in Protestant neighbourhoods where Catholics lived and then wash his hands of the ensuing violence. He denounced John Paul II as the Anti-Christ to his face (and that is just rude). He was, frankly, a laugh riot for everyone who didn’t have to share an island with him.
There is a “but”. There is almost always a “but”.
In 2007, his party received a majority of votes and, going against a seemingly endless litany of vows that he would never do so, he entered government with his arch-rival Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, a former member of the IRA.
It was like the Odd Couple, if Felix and Oscar had been grappling with a legacy of centuries of sectarian hatred. But, somehow, (my money’s on divine intervention) they managed to work together and even form a friendship. The tentative peace in the North held. However unlikely it may seem, on the list of names of the men and women who helped to bring that awful chapter of our history to a close, we must include Ian Richard Kyle Paisley.
Growing up in the Republic in the eighties, Paisley was always a strange ogre in the attic. A cruel, booming voiced bully who (I thought) hated me and everyone like me. As time went on, he mellowed (he could scarcely have become harsher) and I guess my views of him mellowed too. In one of the last interviews he gave he admitted that the Unionist government that had denied equal voting rights to Catholics had been unjust. That might not sound like much, but trust me, that man had to walk a very long way to get to that point.
I guess that’s why, in the end, I draw some solace from the life of Ian Paisley. He started out as, in many ways, a horrible man. And slowly, painfully slowly, he became a better one. Paisley proved, I think, that it’s never too late to reassess old prejudices, and you’re never too old to at least try to be a better man. It is, in fact, a very Catholic ideal.
Though I think, even at the end of his life, he would not have thanked me for saying so.
May he rest in peace. May we all.