The political figures of my youth are gradually dying off. Ian Paisley has joined Tony Benn, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the ranks of dominant figures of the 1980s who are no longer with us.
That said, Paisley wasn’t a dominant figure only in the 80s, but in the 70s, 90s and 2000s as well. He’s been around for so long that it was quite a surprise when I realised today that he was in his forties before he became an elected politician.
Today, I’m mourning Ian Paisley, a man who I disagreed with very strongly on almost every major issue of politics and theology. I am not mourning him out of politeness, or out of a difficult effort to love an enemy, but mainly because I admired him. This may come as a shock to some of those who know me or my views.
The former leader of the Alliance Party, John Cushnahan, rightly said yesterday that we should not be “rewriting” Paisley’s life and overlooking the “pain and suffering” to which he contributed. There can be little doubt that he often stirred up sectarianism and acted as a block towards power-sharing agreements several times. He also led the vicious “Save Ulster from Sodomy” campaign against the legalisation of sex between men in Northern Ireland in 1982 (responses included the slogan “Save Sodomy from Paisley”).
None of this should be overlooked, even as commentators naturally focus on his good points in the wake of his death. Many people who met Ian Paisley, including journalists and critics as well as opponents, say they were surprised by his friendliness and gentleness. His speeches in the Commons contained much more humour than is sometimes acknowledged. It’s also good to see a politician who sticks by his principles.
However, principle in itself is not enough. The truly admirable quality about Ian Paisley was his willingness to apply those principles in a new way that contributed heavily to reconciliation, even though he alienated former friends and supporters in doing so.
Cushnahan was right on one level when said that Paisley’s support for power-sharing was “too little, too late”. It can reasonably be argued that Paisley and Martin McGuinness, along with the other Sinn Feiners and Paisleyites, may not have needed to lead Northern Ireland in such a painful peace process if they had not spent so long stirring up division and resisting reconciliation.
But that of course is the point. For reconciliation to be meaningful, it must involve those who are hard to reconcile. Peace cannot be built solely by people who have always been trying to build it, but must involve those who have long resisted it. Reconciliation, paradoxically, can only be achieved by those who are not sure that they want it.
I’m not rewriting history. I’m not forgetting the sectarianism, the homophobia and the barriers to peacebuilding for which Ian Paisley shares responsibility. I don’t blame those who were affected by these things for being considerably less complimentary about Paisley than some of the commentaries in today’s papers. But Paisley showed that there was more to him than that. To make a major transformation so late in life cannot be easy.
Paisley died too early to give us his response to the result of next week’s Scottish referendum on independence. Today, Orangemen have travelled from Northern Ireland to join a pro-union march in Edinburgh. In discussing questions of national identity, the British media’s focus has moved from Ulster to Scotland.
Messy and complex struggles for peace with justice continue. Let’s stand against many of the ideas which Paisley often represented, while being ever open to the spirit of reconciliation to which he eventually turned.