Prodigal son who squandered talents on bigotry

Analysis: no whitewash from commentators in appraisals of former DUP leader’s record

Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness signs the book of condolence for Ian Paisley at Derry’s Guildhall. Photograph: Margaret McLaughlin

Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness signs the book of condolence for Ian Paisley at Derry’s Guildhall. Photograph: Margaret McLaughlin


Ian Paisley got the full front-page treatment on Northern Ireland’s three main morning newspapers on Saturday.

The centre-ground, but fairly unionist, Belfast Telegraph went for “Goodbye Big Man”. The unionist News Letter similarly decided on “Farewell Big Man”.

The nationalist Irish News chose “Death of a demagogue”.

Like the Irish News, former Alliance leader John Cushnahan also told it straight in expressing astonishment “at the rewriting of Ian Paisley’s political contribution by some political commentators”.

He lamented, as have many then and since, that Paisley and the loyalist paramilitaries on one side and the IRA on the other brought down the 1974 Sunningdale power-sharing northern executive – the precursor of what we have now at Stormont. Had Paisley then been a positive force, rather than a wrecking ball, how many lives might have been saved, he wondered, as also have many others wondered in the intervening decades.

But even within these soft and hard respective unionist and nationalist newspaper headlines, reporters and commentators with different degrees of emphasis acknowledged both the bad and good in the Rev Ian Paisley’s 88 years on Earth.

There was no attempt at a snow job or whitewash.

But what there was was a general acknowledgement, and a continuing relief, that in the end he did have that Damascene moment, that finally and purely on his terms he did a deal with republicanism and nationalism. And that he made it work. People have time for a prodigal son, particularly one who saw the light after decades of squandering his talents on bigotry, bile and bitterness.


From 1964, when he provoked a riot between nationalists and the RUC in west Belfast, he was the perpetual political No man. That changed utterly in March 2007 when he sat alongside Gerry Adams at Stormont to prepare the way for the power-sharing agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin two months later.

Nobody forgets the 43 firebrand years of political demolition but most people were very thankful for the final seven years of peace-building. Most people, while astonished, were cheered that he made terms with republicans of whom he previously demanded sackcloth-and-ashes penitence – and that he did it with good grace and enthusiasm.

Many have commented that had he been a younger man and been in a position to remain longer as first minister and DUP leader that the difficulties that are now threatening the future of Stormont might have been averted. Personality matters and Paisley had the persona and the will to ensure his relationship with Martin McGuinness would work – which is in contrast with the current state of relations between the Deputy First Minister and First Minister Peter Robinson.

Paisley is being buried today at a private service in a country churchyard in Co Down almost certainly presided over by his son, the Rev Kyle Paisley. It seems extraordinary that in his final period that such a populist would choose to be laid to rest with just his close family at the graveside.

Who could have refused him a state funeral on a par with that of that other great troublesome unionist leader Edward Carson?

Is it because of his alienation from the Free Presbyterian Church that he founded?

Is it because he felt betrayed by the former friends and the politicians whom he mentored in the DUP, which he also founded, such as Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds?

Or is this his quiet, sackcloth-and-ashes atonement?