The former first minister for Northern Ireland, Ian Paisley, will be buried in County Down following his funeral in east Belfast. Doctor Paisley, who stepped down from politics in 2008, passed away on Friday he was 88.
His successor as first minister and Democratic Unionist Party leader, Peter Robinson, released a statement saying “Ian Paisley was a remarkable man, whose long career in public life has left an indelible mark upon all of us who knew him. Like so many, I was drawn towards politics by the clarity, the certainty, the strength and the conviction of his message.” The first minister said Doctor Paisley had “taken his place in the chronicles of Ulster history, alongside the greats of unionism”.
Former President of the United States of America, who knew Paisley personally, also stated “I was saddened to learn of the death of Ian Paisley, whose remarkable political career carried him from being the leader of hardline unionism to his service as first minister of the Northern Ireland assembly, which was marked by his good working relationship with Martin McGuinness. In the end, the once-polarising Paisley demonstrated that reconciliation and cooperation is better than conflict and discord. That is how he advanced peace for the people he loved so much.”
A book of condolence opened at Belfast City Hall on Monday, where the union flag was flown at half-mast. A spokeswoman for Belfast City Council said the flag had been displayed under the College of Arms policy.
Doctor Paisley was a founder of the Free Presbyterian Church in 1951 after a split with the Presbyterian Church; he resigned this role as a key leader of the Free Presbyterian Church in 2008. On Sunday a prayer service was held in honour of Dr Paisley at the church he founded, The Martyr’s Memorial. This is the same church from which Paisley was ousted from completely in 2011 after an internal coup following the objection of fellow elders of the church over compromises made with Sinn Féin.
Paisley’s public relations message, attached to The European Union for Protestant studies, states the purpose of the institute was to “expound the Bible, expose the Papacy, and to promote, defend and maintain Bible Protestantism in Europe and further afield.” During the 80s Paisley made perhaps his most fractious move. The visiting Pope John Paul II was speaking to the European Parliament, Paisley stood and shouted “I denounce you as the Antichrist!” and held up a red poster reading “Pope John Paul II ANTICHRIST” in black letters. The ejection which followed Paisley wore as a badge of honour and in a 2001 documentary said he was proud to be “the only person to have the courage to denounce the Pope”.
He was also the founder of the Democratic Unionist Party. Following his election on behalf of the Protestant Unionist Party Paisley, another PUP candidate, William Beattie, won the South Antrim seat. In the 1970 UK general election, Paisley won the North Antrim seat and claimed that this was a show of how fractured the party had become, a year later in 1971 he and Desmond Boal founded the Democratic Unionist Party. Paisley was also at the forefront of the opposition against the Sunningdale agreement and formed the United Ulster Unionist Council in opposition to the agreement wishing to maintain control without having to work with Nationalists.
What most will remember Paisley for however were the compromises made in the 2000s. Following his retention of the North Antrim seat in 2005 Paisley was made a Privy Councillor and in 2007 was named First Minister of Northern Ireland. In the October 2006, Paisley and the DUP agreed to new elections, and support for a new executive including Sinn Féin subject to Sinn Féin acceptance of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. This move reversed decades of Paisley opposition to Sinn Féin such as his comments on 12 July 2006 in Portrush, following Orange Order parades when he said, “Sinn Fein are not fit to be in partnership with decent people. They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland and it will be over our dead bodies if they ever get there.”
In 2007 Paisley was re-elected as First Minister of Northern Ireland with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness as the deputy First Minister. Speaking to an invited international audience he said, “Today at long last we are starting upon the road—I emphasise starting—which I believe will take us to lasting peace in our province.”
This compromise whilst proving unpopular did help to establish peace in Northern Ireland following years of violence. The representation for Sinn Féin was a major step towards this and was a strong statement from Paisley that as Bill Clinton stated “That is how he advanced peace for the people he loved so much.”
Ian Paisley leaves behind a legacy which is at best difficult to figure out. As mentioned above his move towards reconciliation and cooperation helped move towards peace. The need for a move towards peace however can also be attributed to him. Paisley’s anti-Catholic message helped to ignite the tinder box that was Ireland before the Troubles began. Maybe he had finally realised that peace for his people was more important than his own idealism, maybe he was tired of fighting every day or maybe he just decided peace was worth this price. He and his fellows could now live and die knowing that the work they had done had helped stabilise a country they loved so much. That what they had done was bigger than religious differences, that what they had done was save the lives of those who they were representing.
Maybe that was enough.