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Ian Paisley, RIP

Rev. Ian Paisley

DUP Photos

Greg Daly - published on 09/13/14 - updated on 06/07/17

“He began as the militant. He ended as the peace-maker,” says Tony Blair of fiery preacher.

“He began as the militant. He ended as the peace-maker.”

So said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday of Ian Paisley, former leader of Ulster’s Democratic Unionist Party, who has died at the age of 88.

Born in Armagh in 1926, the son of a Baptist minister and a Scottish mother, he grew up in Ballymena and followed in the family business, delivering his first sermon in a County Tyrone mission hall at the age of 16. Educated at the South Wales Bible College and Belfast’s Reformed Presbyterian Theological College, he was just 25 years old when in 1951 he founded the Free Presbyterian Church which today boasts 15,000 members.

Steeped in unionist politics, in 1959 he led his first explicitly political rally in Belfast’s shipyard. Under the banner of “Ulster Protestant Action,” which he had helped found three years earlier, he declared his opposition to a ban on a march by the Orange Order through a small Catholic neighborhood. Northern Ireland’s then Prime Minister feared that allowing the provocative march would generate sympathy for the then feeble IRA, but Paisley would have none of that, declaring, “There are no nationalist areas in Northern Ireland. If necessary the Protestants in the Queen’s Island will go to Dungiven and march behind the Union Jack.”

The 1959 rally was followed by riots and attacks on Catholic-owned businesses, establishing a pattern that would be followed time and again throughout his career—most famously when, in 1964, Paisley provoked Belfast’s worst rioting in decades when police removed an Irish flag from an election office in response to Paisley’s threat to do so himself.

The mid-1960s also saw the beginning of Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement, which sought to end discrimination against Catholics. Paisley characterised the response of Captain Terrence O’Neill, the then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, as appeasement. In 1968, he earned a second spell in prison after organizing a demonstration that cut short a civil rights march. Paisley’s first conviction had been for unlawful assembly, after riots ensued following a 1966 parade to Belfast’s General Presbyterian Assembly, where he insulted dignitaries for their “Romanizing tendencies.”

In many ways a 17th-century firebrand, much of Paisley’s career was built on anti-Catholic rhetoric. When Pope John XXIII died in 1963, Paisley celebrated that “this Romish man of sin is now in Hell,” and he habitually referred to subsequent popes as “Old Red Socks” and “the Scarlet Woman of Rome.” In 1988, he was famously bundled out of the European Parliament by several of his fellow MEPs including Otto von Hapsburg, son of the last emperor of Austria, after he barracked Pope John Paul II as an “anti-Christ.” For Paisley, the Church was “the whore of Babylon,” while Catholics, he said in 1969, “breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin.”

Such inflammatory language found a ready audience among Ulster’s Protestants, but others looked on aghast: In 1981, the United States’ State Department revoked his visa on the basis of his “divisive rhetoric.” Enoch Powell, the then Ulster Unionist MP for South Down, described Paisley as “the most resourceful, inveterate, and dangerous enemy of the Union,” posing a bigger threat to the United Kingdom than Britain’s own Foreign Office and the IRA combined.

The IRA, which had been almost moribund prior to rioting and other acts of violence that marked unionist responses to the civil rights movement, were only too happy to allow Paisley to continue in his fulminations. IRA leader Dáithí Ó Conaill remarked in the 1970s that, “there’s no way we would kill Ian Paisley . . . he’s the best recruiting sergeant we’ve got.”

In 1971, two years after British troops had been sent into Northern Ireland to restore order and, indeed, to protect Catholics, Paisley founded the Democratic Unionist Party. Two years later, he joined forces with the neo-fascist Vanguard Movement and paramilitary Ulster Defence to oppose the Sunningdale Agreement, which had attempted to give Catholics a say in how Northern Ireland was governed. In 1974, he supported the Ulster Workers Council Strike that brought down the executive and drew Northern Ireland closer than ever to all-out civil war.

Over the following decades, despite his oft-attested personal kindness and industry on behalf of Catholic constituents, Paisley worked hard to position himself as the true champion of Ulster’s Protestants, subverting attempts at peace or reconciliation with the Irish Republic. Casting the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement as an act of betrayal by Britain, he rallied more than 100,000 people in Belfast under the banner “Ulster Says No,” condemning Britain’s then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, for allowing the Irish Republic a say in the government of Northern Ireland. He then responded to the agreement by helping to found the paramilitary Ulster Resistance, which was linked with attempts to smuggle arms to the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Force.

In 1993, he was ordered to leave Britain’s House of Commons after condemning the Northern Ireland secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, who had revealed that the government had been engaged in secret — and hitherto denied talks with the IRA. He viewed as yet another British betrayal that December’s “Downing Street Declaration,” a joint declaration by the British Prime Minister John Major and the Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds that the Irish people had a right to self-determination, but that Ireland would only be reunited if this was the wish of the majority of Northern Ireland’s people. Paisley thus found himself unprepared when this led to the following year’s ceasefire declarations by the IRA and the Combined Loyalist Military Command.

A determined opponent of the peace process, as late as Holy Thursday 1998 he publicly scorned the prospect of compromise between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists, but was shouted down by supporters of the political wings of the loyalist paramilitaries, who called him a “dinosaur.” Despite Paisley’s predications, an agreement was reached the following day.

In the era of the new Good Friday Agreement, (characterized by Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the constitutional nationalist SDLP, as “Sunningdale for slow learners”), Paisley looked destined to live on merely as a bigoted reminder of Northern Ireland’s past. Growing unionist disenchantment with the sometimes ugly realities of the negotiated peace and doubts about the sincerity of the IRA and its political wing Sinn Féin, however, resulted in Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party being returned to the Northern Ireland assembly in 2004 as the province’s largest party.

More than two years of political wrangling followed, but in 2006, Paisley met with Ireland’s most senior Catholic bishop, Sean Brady (until this Monday Archbishop of Armagh), and he subsequently stated that, “It is in the interests of everyone to develop the foundations for stability and prosperity for all the people of Northern Ireland.”  

Cardinal Brady echoed him, saying, “I firmly believe that such a future is within our grasp if each one of us can find the courage to take account of the needs of the other, and not just those of our own community. I think that real peace will come only when we focus on the common good of all of our society and not just on sectional interest.”

Shortly afterward, the DUP signed the St. Andrew’s agreement, which paved the way to a power-sharing executive that included Sinn Féin, and the following March, Paisley appeared with the Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams to announce that their parties had reached agreement. When the new power-sharing government was formally established in May, he declared, “ I can say to you today that I believe Northern Ireland has come to a time of peace, a time when hate will no longer rule. How good it will be to be part of the wonderful healing in this province today.”

He stood down the following year as First Minister of Northern Ireland.

“History will record his political career as a journey,” said John Hume (SDLP leader between 1979 and 2001) yesterday, “one which took him from the politics of division to a place where he accepted agreement as a solution, the need for power-sharing, and respect for diversity. But history will also ask if he should have reached this point sooner.”

Mark Durkan, Hume’s successor as leader of the SDLP, agreed, describing Paisley as “someone who in spite of the fact that he opposed agreements and institutions actually came to a position where he helped to ensure that we have a settled process and even more agreements around those arrangements and institutions.”

Tony Blair, Prime Minister when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, said, “His religious beliefs were profound and genuine. He talked to me often about the need for forgiveness and I am sure part of what made him finally take the road to peace, was his capacity, driven by his Christian belief, to contemplate and then work for reconciliation. I don’t suppose 40 years ago he would ever have thought that politically his life then would end as it does now. But I know he and Eileen would be very proud of his huge contribution to a peaceful future for Northern Ireland.”

Ian Paisley, Lord Bannside, is survived by his wife, Eileen, his sons Ian and Kyle, and his three daughters, Rhonda, Sharon and Cherith.

Greg Daly covers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.

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