Ian Paisley, deathly ill at 85, did much harm; but healing has begun

One of Northern Ireland’s most fearful sectarian agitators is coming to the end of his life at the age of 85. Ian Paisley, minister, politician, bigot, and one-time leader of anti-Catholic sentiment in its most virulent forms, lies in a Belfast hospital with an ailing heart and other undisclosed medical problems, and with his family gathered around him, waiting.

Good riddance many would say, for Paisley, a presence everywhere he traveled with his broad shoulders and volcanic voice, never contributed to peace and understanding of any kind until he surprisingly appeared to mellow late in his life.

He was born in April 1926, four years after Northern Ireland was partitioned from the rest of Ireland, into a Baptist minister’s family in Ballymena. This was a time when anti-Catholicism was very popular in the North (some say it still is amongst certain groups). The ruling Protestant aristocracy refused to give Catholics jobs and young Protestant families received first housing preference across all of the North. And with the approval of their legislature in Belfast, Protestant leaders systematically gerrymandered political constituencies to deny Catholic voting influence. In 1968, for example, Derry, with its 20,000 Catholics and 10,000 Protestants, was divided so that all the Catholics were lumped into one district, leaving the Protestants as the majority in the two other districts, which enabled them to vote for 12 city councillors in their two districts while the Catholics could only cast ballots for 8 councillors in theirs. It should come as no surprise that Protestants ruled Derry until recently.

This was the general atmosphere in the North as Paisley reached adulthood. The future was to be even more radical.
Not only was Paisley a formidable physical presence, but he also proved to be quite intelligent, crafting his speeches and various press comments to please or annoy as he wished. Some of his more outrageous comments were constructed to appeal to his followers and to draw attention to himself.

In 1946, at age 20, he became minister of the East Belfast Ravenhill Evangelical Mission. Evidence of his training for this duty is somewhat obscure, but there he was. Five years later, he founded the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, saying at the time that he had become disenchanted with the main Presbyterian Church and accusing them of “creeping towards Romanism.”

In 1958, Paisley denounced the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret for “committing spiritual fornication and adultery with the Anti-Christ,” when they visited Pope John XXIII in Rome. In 1963, when Pope John died, Paisley offered these statements: “The Pope is now in Hell,” and “The Romish man of sin is now in Hell.”

Some 25 years later, in 1988, when Pope John Paul II was speaking to the European Parliament, to which the people of Northern Ireland had elected Paisley, he stood during the speech and yelled, “He is the Anti-Christ,” earning him a suspension from that body.

Was the man stupid, just playing to his crowd, or was he, simply, a bigot?

I saw Paisley in the London airport one day during my travels. While I was walking to my gate, I saw the corridor ahead of me blocked by the police, and in short order there was Paisley, bustling along with an aide, the two of them protected by a pair of burly police officers, each carrying a machine gun. Was there a real threat, or did he just enjoy the attention? It all seemed quite unnecessary.

I also met the man twice on trips to Belfast. The first time was in 1994 while I was at the American consul general’s home with a group of my organization’s supporters. Paisley came bursting into the house, exclaiming in his booming voice, “I’m not speaking; you can ask questions; who’s in charge here?” I stepped up somewhat timidly and said, “That’s me, Reverend Paisley. These folks have come 3,000 miles to hear you. Would you consider speaking for five minutes and I’ll ask the first question?”

He looked at me, a twinkle in his eye, and said, “You have done this before haven’t you, Leary?” In his talk, he blamed all the violence and unrest on the IRA. In every answer to questions, he managed to make it seem that the IRA was the only bad side in the North. After the discussion period, I walked out with him, and noting the rain, I asked with a grin: “Do you blame the IRA for the rain, too?” Loudly, and with his own grin, he replied: “Absolutely!”

Humor from a monster?

The other time I met the minister was on a trip to Northern Ireland with former Massachusetts Governor William Weld. We were on our way into The Malone House for a dinner with Northern Irish officials, and as I walked in well behind all the officials accompanying the governor, who greeted me but Paisley himself. He was his same loud self, and I’m sure he didn’t recognize me from our first meeting.

After the speeches and the meal, a British reporter came up to me thinking I was a friend of Paisley’s and asked me if she could speak to him. I went over to him and made the request on her behalf. He was seated at the end of his table and grabbed my arm and said, “Sure, but you sit right next to me.”

The reporter asked several inane questions with Paisley providing completely slanted answers. He eventually got bored, declaring the interview over while holding my arm again to keep me there as he dismissed the reporter. “How did I do?” he asked. I took a deep breath and replied with a slight grin, “Sir, you are a complete fraud.” With that he slammed his hands on the table, and began to laugh (they were more like guffaws, I would say) as he slapped me on the back and continued to enjoy himself until someone interrupted.

So Ian Paisley had a sense of humor. How do these stories fit with the rest of his tyrannical image? He did a lot of harm during his life. He will be gone soon and the hurts have begun to heal.