Mourning Ian Paisley

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.

Historic handshakes and the cycle of violence

We can only guess what was going through the minds of Martin McGuiness and Elizabeth Windsor as they shook hands in Belfast last week. One of my favourite takes on the event was a cartoon of the handshake in Thursday’s Independent. It showed Elizabeth saying “Renouncing command of an army and seeking democratic approval – nawt bleddy lakely!”.

As a republican pacifist, I have little natural sympathy with either Martin McGuiness or Elizabeth Windsor. However, I applaud the efforts of various politicians on several sides in the Irish peace process. Even more so, I applaud the people of Northern Ireland themselves.

I was truly heartened by the photographs of this handshake. Thankfully, neither party to the handshake – nor their advisers – felt the need to rush out statements in advance clarifying what they did or didn’t mean by it. McGuiness did not bow to Elizabeth Windsor. Nor, I suspect, did he address her as “your majesty”. It was good to see her talking to someone as an equal. McGuiness was quick to tell the media afterwards “I’m still a republican”.

The handshake said far more than words could, despite all the questions it leaves open. It says a lot about the frustrating but inspiring nature of reconciliation that a handshake like this can happen while the questions are still so open. Reconciliation is not easy. It is not fluffy or comfortable. Reconciliation is messy. It is painful. Reconciliation involves seeing people you’re not keen on doing things that you’d rather they were not doing.

It’s been good to see several newspapers applauding the reconciliation symbolised by this handshake. Some of those same papers took a different approach throughout the troubles, insisting that it would be both wrong and unproductive to try to engage in dialogue with terrorists. They now speak about reconciliation and the need to break cycles of violence.

Sadly, some of them are as reluctant to apply this message to Afghanistan, Syria or the streets of Britain as they were to apply it to Northern Ireland in the 80s and 90s. Reconciliation is a rather easier thing to support once it has gained widespread approval. It is much harder for the brave individuals who are prepared to advocate it while others are screaming for blood.

Violence and hatred breed more violence and hatred. This is surely one of the most obvious lessons of history as well as one of the most ignored. As Martin Luther King put it, through violence you may destroy the hater, but you will not destroy the hate.

I would find it hard to shake hands with either Elizabeth Windsor or Martin McGuiness, although I hope I would readily do so in the unlikely event that the situation presented itself. I applaud them – and their advisers – for the handshake, for the equal, respectful body language and for the fact that neither side felt that lots of words were needed to justify themselves.

Even more do I applaud the people of Northern Ireland and the many others who have played a part in the long, very incomplete but truly inspiring process of reconciliation. Let’s applaud the courage of those brave enough to support the first steps to reconciliation, as well as those who came to the process late and were prepared to lose face by putting reconciliation first.

One of the most poignant reflections on the handshake was written by Tony Parsons in the Daily Mirror. He noted that we cannot know what went through the heads of either party as they shook hands. We can’t know what ghosts haunted them. He added, “But this we can say with certainty. The human soul grows sickened of hatred”.

Amen to that.


The above article formed my latest column on the Ekklesia website. To see more Ekklesia columns – by my colleagues as well as myself – please visit