Recently, in a corner of a small island in the North Atlantic, an elderly man died. He was 88 years old and had been in failing health for some time. In his life, he had started out as an ordained minister and along the way, unavoidably (or, more accurately, eagerly) got involved in politics. With his great stature (for he was six-feet four in height and weighing some 240 pounds), booming voice (he spoke with such great force he really didn’t need a bullhorn or a microphone), and outsize personality, he exerted an influence disproportionate to what he should have had or have any right to have. With all the gifts he had been given in his life, he used them, and used them to the full—but not in a positive way or for positive means, and certainly not for the benefit of the people who lived in that corner of that small island or for that matter, for the whole of that island of which it is a part—nor, it must be acknowledged, for that other island across the Irish Sea for which he professed and claimed his utmost allegiance and alliance.
The man with the outsized personality and very outsized influence who was both minister and politician was Lord Bannside, otherwise known as the Rev. Ian Paisley. The “Big Man”—as he was often called—was infamous for his repeated refrain of “Ulster Says NO!” to any attempt toward accommodation with Irish Catholics who also lived in that province. He was the scold of everyone, from Prime Ministers of various London governments to his own Monarch, the Queen (to whom he was supposed to be loyal to in the first place) to Presidents of the United States, to anything Roman Catholic (from the pope on down) to the government of the Republic of Ireland to the south (whom he called the “Devils of Dublin”). And yet, when he died on September 12, 2014, many people across the political and religious divide hailed him as a man of peace for consenting to the Good Friday and St. Andrews agreements and then entering into power sharing with his avowed enemies. Because of that, he emerged as the “First Minister” of Northern Ireland and he continued to exert his influence on the history of those islands.
While it is the proper thing to commend those whose have died to the love and mercy of God, I, as a practicing Catholic Christian, must do so in the case of Ian Paisley. But in good conscience I cannot countenance Ian Paisley as a “man of peace” or a “peacemaker.” Though I am not a professional historian, academic, political analyst or theologian, I have, given my heritage, a particular interest—and maybe some insight—in matters involving what is known as the “Four Nations”—Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. For I am the first-generation son of Irish immigrants, and have grown up hearing, learning and living that history of these islands.
From the time I became conscious of current events as a boy and started to begin to understand them—especially when it came to Ireland—I became perplexed by the phenomenon that was Ian Paisley. He was a minister, yet he literally preached hate while supposedly exalting “Christ and Christ Crucified” in his church pulpit; he was a politician who excelled in spurning people instead of bringing them together; he was a loving, ascetic family man—yet he was one who liked his “creature comforts.” He wanted respect but wouldn’t give it; he wanted publicity and the attention that came with it and almost always got it. He bullied and threatened in order to have his way when reason and discussion were foreign to him. He was a teetotaler, denouncing the evils of line dancing and the movies, but saw nothing wrong in telling bawdy jokes and tales in a crowded smoky bar with the attention of all focused on him. And most grievously of all, while denouncing those Irish men and women who fought political and religious discrimination (peacefully and otherwise), he didn’t bat an eyelid when he himself formed paramilitary gangs to fight back against those he deemed a threat to his Unionist view of life. And for a man who professed a great love for democracy, the monarchy and the Union Jack, he saw nothing wrong in holding Westminster hostage for a handful of votes in order to preserve his little enclave up North.
If he was a “peacemaker,” he was a cynical one. Reportedly, he was once asked why he finally consented to join his “enemies” in sharing governmental power after years of excoriating them. In a telling answer, he replied that he was Unionism’s “top dog”—in effect, he was in control. The fact that he was a “man of the cloth” while exhorting people to hate was and is offensive—in effect, he turned the Gospel inside out and upside down. Given the fact that as a clergyman he loved to preach the authenticity of the Bible and of every word in its pages, yet he forgot the most basic prayer besides the “Our Father” that Jesus taught. It was Jesus’ other prayer, from the Garden of Gethsemane—“that they may be one.” If Paisley ever prayed that prayer, it was likely so that the Unionists “may be one,” not Protestants and Catholics, not Unionist and Nationalist, Irish and British.
If the words of praise that were spoken in the days after his death are to be believed, then perhaps Ian Paisley really and truly did move away from his long-held views, behavior and actions. If he actually turned away from all those years of sorrow and strife of which he played an outsized part to the point that his former enemies now considered him a “friend,” then, like St. Paul, he had his “Road to Damascus” moment. Only he—and God—knows for certain the truth of that. For Ian Paisley’s sake—and for the sake of all the peoples of Ireland—I hope he did.
The peace that came about from the Good Friday agreement still holds, though tenuously. There are fears now that sectarianism may again rear its ugly head—may God forbid it! In its long and tortured history, the island of Ireland had been held hostage to both “God and the gun.” Both had been misused grievously, by both Protestants and Catholics. Hopefully, some day, Ireland will really and truly be free, united as one nation under a flag where all people will live in respect and comity, irrespective of privately held religious faith and that everyone will have the chance to live a long, peaceful and purposeful life. In a land where 1690, 1798, or 1916 is merely considered to be “yesterday,” it is to be hoped that the words “only our rivers run free” will be just the words of a song and that authentic freedom that is treasured will not have been gained or purchased at such a fearful cost.
Ian Paisley was buried in a simple ceremony, attended only by family, on a hill near his home, overlooking the city of Belfast and the province of Ulster that was his bailiwick. As a BBC documentary once aptly described him, "The Unquiet Man” was laid to rest. The work of peace continues, however delicate and imperfect the efforts may be. The day of true peace is far off and unknowable. But until that day comes, the body and soul of the Rev. Ian Paisley has to be commended to the love and mercy of God. And it is to be devoutly hoped that the venom and bitterness that he once preached has disappeared once and for all.
Joseph McAuley is an assistant editor at America.