I wrote this piece below shortly after the Rev Ian Paisley died. I still believe that his ‘conversion’ was the beginning of a new era in political life on this island. There is no going back even though the present DUP leadership have not followed his example. They seem to want to drag us back to the bad old days..
‘At least you know where you stand with Paisley’, many Catholics used to say. ‘You never know with the other crowd’, meaning the Official Unionists, with their Masonic connections and their close attachment to the Orange Order and their contacts with those in the higher echelons of the British political and military establishment. Paisley did not seem to have these connections or even to want to have them. He was seen as anti-establishment. Catholics felt that Paisley was preferable even though his venom and anti Catholicism were hard to stomach. I knew Catholics who used to shout at the television whenever he came on. Others laughed at his buffoonery. I knew one Catholic woman who even joined his Free Presbyterian church and went around preaching on his behalf. It is amazing how the once reviled ‘man of the cloth’ became the acceptable face of unionism when he decided to share power with his arch enemies in Sinn Fein. He even met with priests and the archbishop and appeared to be courteous. He befriended Fr Denis Faul on the issue of the Disappeared which I thought was interesting given his stated abhorrence of priests and ‘priest craft’. It still amazes me how this change of attitude took place -and yet in another way it was almost inevitable as part of Paisley’s personal pursuit of power.
I never met Ian Paisley face to face but I came very close on at least one occasion. It was about 1990. I was sitting in the waiting room at Heathrow sipping a pint of Guinness (‘the devil’s buttermilk’) before boarding the flight for Belfast when Paisley breezed in carrying his brief-case, followed by his then side-kick, Peter Robinson. I froze for a moment. I was afraid that he would recognise me and see me drinking the Guinness so I kept my head down. A short time before that he had mentioned me in a disparaging way in the course of an RTE interview and I thought to myself if he sees me drinking ‘the devil’s buttermilk’ I am in for it about right. I do not think he recognised me. I ended up sitting a few seats behind himself and Robinson on the plane. There was no eye-contact. That was the last time we travelled together!
I would add that at that time to be singled out by Paisley for attention was not a good place to be. It was the time of Ulster Resistance. I did feel at the time that by referring to us in the way he did he was setting us up for some kind of attack. He usually treated priests like Fr Des Wilson and myself with contempt because we dared to speak out on behalf of the victims of state terrorism. His friendship with Denis Faul was a sign of things to come, the first sign of mellowing that I remember.
There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s that I did not have much time for the Rev Ian Paisley, when he shouted at the Pope inBrussels in 1988. I thought what an ignorant buffoon. I remember when at a debate in the Oxford Union in the 1960s he produced a Communion wafer and made fun of the Mass. He could be very vicious and insulting. He attacked Cardinal Ó Fiaich as the ‘IRA’s bishop from Crossmaglen’. He also made fun of Cardinal Daly referring to his red socks. His Protestant Telegraph newspaper, which I read occasionally, was full of venom and sectarian hatred of Rome and ‘papists’. One of his dedicated followers referred to me as ‘a Papish agitator’. There is no doubt that he had a widespread appeal among ordinary Protestants for this kind of anti-Catholic rhetoric. Faced with the uncertainties of the future and fearful of the intentions of the British government he played on Protestant fears and insecurity. He was following in the line of Roaring Hanna and the other demagogue Cooke in the 19th century. They stirred up anti-Catholic feelings blaming the Catholic Church for the violence.
My earliest memory of Paisley on Television was of him throwing snowballs at Captain Terence O’Neill and the Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, when they met to bring about closer cooperation between north and south. In those years, Paisley seemed to me, to be a very bitter man promoting bigotry and bitterness. He was also a good actor and a showman. He used his booming voice to full effect to make his point (‘Never, Never, Never’) or to shout somebody down. He was especially bad- mannered towards journalists from the south of Ireland asking to smell their breath for alcohol.
Back then I thought there never would be peace while Paisley was around. Some said he would be killed by the British. Others said the IRA would not touch him because he was good propaganda for them. He survived and he became the man who made the peace with his old enemies in Sinn Fein. He became a man of peace much to everyone’s surprise and much to the satisfaction of most people living on this island.
Ian Paisley is the last of the great northern demagogues. He followed in the footsteps of Roaring Hanna and Cooke and Carson until he ‘saw the light’ and took the path of reconciliation.
I believe Ian Paisley was caught in a trap – the trap of bigotry and anti-Catholicism -not entirely of his own making. He fell into it when he opposed the civil rights movement. He later recognised his mistake. In May 2007 when he became First Minister I think he was glad to have found a way out of the trap and I suppose it took some courage for him to make that decision to join in a power-sharing government with Martin McGuinness who was always gracious towards him.
They say that his near death experience had a serious effect on him. They also say that his wife Eileen had a serious influence on him and persuaded him to become a man of peace towards the end of his life. Whatever happened to bring about his conversion and the softening of his attitudes and his close friendship with Martin McGuinness and Bertie Ahern we are all grateful for it. It marked the beginning of a new chapter in Irish politics and Irish history and for that we must be grateful.
It is a pity that many of his erstwhile political followers cannot show the same grace and the same willingness to share power with openness and respect. It is to be hoped that after this election someone will emerge in the party he founded who will adopt his example and engage in an open and respectful way with Sinn Fein.