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.