There is an old joke that as planes landed in Belfast during the troubles the pilot would remind you to set your watches back 500 years to the local time. It is somewhat tempting to picture Ian Paisley during the reformation hammering his 95 Theses to a church door or clandestinely preaching his protestant views while evading the Spanish Inquisition. Even his upbringing in the Ulster bible belt practicing his preaching as a teenager to bemused shepherds in the rugged countryside has an old world feel to it. However we must judge the great unionist leader in the context of our time and not those of days gone by. When asked by a BBC journalist in 2001 whether he should be a good Christian and forgive the IRA, he replied quoting Matthew 7:16, “Ye shall judge them by their fruits.” Let us do exactly the same with Ian Kyle Paisley.
The fruits of his labour throughout the troubles era were sown on vehement and organised opposition to any form of progress in Northern Ireland be-it political, social or religious. He came to prominence in the 1960s as a passionate opponent to Prime Minister O’Neill’s policy of reaching out to the catholic minority, and derided him as a ‘lundy’ who had ‘gone soft’. When the peaceful Civil Rights campaign gained more and more popularity, Paisley staged counter demonstrations and pressured the RUC to clamp down on ‘illegal marches’. In 1969 after loyalist mobs, including members of the armed police reserve the B-Specials, rampaged through Catholic areas of Belfast burning families from their homes to widespread international condemnation, Paisley declared, “Catholic homes caught fire because they were loaded with petrol bombs; Catholic churches were attacked and burned because they were arsenals and priests handed out sub-machine guns to parishioners.”
His hardline stance continued throughout the troubles era as he boldly led campaigns against progressive agreements from Sunningdale in 1973 to Good Friday in 1998. From 1979 onwards he divided the traditionally united unionist vote by creating and leading the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which was allied to his fervent Free Presbyterian Church.
Indeed throughout this period he did not remain within the tramlines of legitimate politics as he periodically flirted overtly with paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee (UCDC), the Third Force, the Ulster Resistance and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). This however did not deter his passionate flock from unquestionably supporting his leadership for decades.
It was only in his twilight years that he began to mellow when he finally relented his opposition and joined a power-sharing government with Sinn Fein in 2007. However the stable society which he now led alongside former IRA leader Martin McGuinness was not made possible by his efforts, but by those whose total dedication to the peace process he stalled for years.
Any discussion of his colourful political career would be incomplete if it did not include his time as an MEP from 1979 to 2004. Alongside political enemies, differences were put aside to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland were given the best representation possible to secure economic investment and broad trade links. Aside from his hiccup of publicly heckling the, “scarlet woman of Rome,” he gained the respect and admiration of those whom he worked alongside in the European parliament.
Upon reflection it is a shame that his magnetic persona and outstanding leadership skills were for so long dedicated to the preservation of an outdated and prejudiced political system. One cannot escape the thought of what may have been in the recent history of Northern Ireland if he had chosen to represent the entire community half a century before. The generations whom he inspired and led need not have been foot-dragging loyalists but a united community working together for a shared future untainted by the sectarian stains of the past.