Monday, September 15, 2014

Ian Paisley’s legacy in Northern Ireland

The recent death of Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland sent me thinking of my meetings with the man during his campaign for the United Kingdom Parliament in June 1970.

I was working as a reporter in the province and covered much of his campaign. It was the beginning of what became to be known as the “Troubles”, with the long-dormant Irish Republican Army (IRA) finding new life on the back of the Catholic community’s legitimate demand for civil rights.

Paisley led the Protestant resistance to the Catholics’ campaign and the subsequent crackdown, first by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, then supplemented by the Protestant-dominated ‘B Specials’ began the spiral into violence.

At the time of his campaign for Westminster, Paisley was already a member of the Northern Ireland Parliament, having won a by-election for the Bannside constituency a couple of months earlier, but he had set his sights on Westminster.

It was a warm night when the result was declared and the atmosphere in the crowded hall in Ballymena in the North Antrim constituency he was seeking to capture, was stifling. Paisley won by less than 3000 votes, upsetting the sitting Ulster Unionist candidate Henry Clark who had previously held the seat with an almost 30,000 majority.

Despite the relative closeness of the final result Paisley was undaunted and in typical fashion told his cheering supporters that “the hand of God had been at work” in the Province to ensure his election.

Paisley was never again seriously challenged for the seat and held it for 40 years; standing down in 2010 when his son, also called Ian, was elected in his place. At one point he was a member of three Parliaments – the Northern Ireland Assembly, Westminster and the European Union in Strasbourg (although he opposed the United Kingdom’s EU membership).

It was in Strasbourg that he caused outrage when he interrupted an address by Pope Paul II to the Parliament, calling him the “antichrist” — in the subsequent uproar he was ejected.

But Paisley mellowed as he aged, and in 2005 agreed that his Democratic Unionist Party should share power with Sinn Fein, in the past referred to as the political wing of the IRA. He became First Minister, with Martin McGuinness, a man he had once denounced as a terrorist, as his deputy.

The two worked well together and at news of Paisley’s death last week, McGuinness described him as a friend.

While I knew Paisley only in his early days, I had always thought there were two sides to his character. The firebrand orator, denouncing the Pope as “old red-socks” and the Dublin administration as “that priest-ridden banana republic” was, in personal conversation, quiet-spoken, reflective and witty.

That he loved Northern Ireland there is no doubt. But it was always to be a Protestant Ulster, tied to the British Crown forever.

For that reason there will be many who have celebrated his death, but in the end perhaps his most important legacy will be his pragmatic decision to lead the fierce ultra-loyalist Protestants he represented into mainstream politics, giving reasonable hope that the bitter antagonisms that have plagued the province for so long will gradually fade into history.    


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