‘There can be no doubt that certain words Ian Paisley spoke sent men out to kill’
He did great harm but we must be grateful for his late volte-face
Ian Paisley on a visit to Downing Street. Photograph: Stephen Hird/Reuters
Ian Paisley’s attitude to speaking ill of the dead was characteristically robust. “This Romish man of sin is now in hell,” he said, on hearing of the death of Pope John XXIII.
But that was long ago, when lines from the poet WR Rodgers would have seemed the best epitaph: “There but for the grace of God goes God.”
That Ian Paisley left the stage some years back, dragging his daisy chain of millstones behind him.
He was replaced by the affable old man who could hardly speak for laughing as he hammed it up for Martin McGuinness at Stormont, making a joke out of the words “no surrender” and “never”, words that for decades had filled some hearts with fear, and turned others to granite.
There can be no doubt whatsoever that certain words he spoke sent men out to kill.
To every thing there is a season, the new Paisley – First Minister Paisley – quoted from King Solomon in 2007. A time to kill and a time to heal. A time of war and a time of peace. The man who used to threaten bitter harvests, said he was now waiting for the harvest of peace.
Sad. No doubt about it, I felt sad when I heard of his death. Sad for his devoted and formidable wife, Eileen, heartbroken in the new hush of her sitting room with the fierce books on the shelves, the little china pandas in the glass cabinet in the corner. Sad for his family.
It was a voice I’d been hearing since it boomed across the fields from the Free Presbyterian church when I was a child in Derry. It was macho and outrageous and scary, but there was a strong element of vaudeville about it too. Women tittered at his jokes about good Protestants breeding to beat the Catholics. Men chuckled and said the “Big Man” said it like it was.
Listening to the tributes, the slimiest from Alastair Campbell, the most difficult and stiffly dignified from Peter Robinson, the most poignant from Martin McGuinness, I remembered the three little Quinn brothers, burned to death in their home in Ballymoney after apocalyptic warnings from Paisley over the rights of the Orange Order at Drumcree.
I remembered Billy Mitchell, a forlorn former loyalist paramilitary who told me he’d been into rock and roll until he started going to Paisley’s rallies in the 1960s and dropped rocking round the clock in favour of preparing for doomsday. He killed two men and never forgave himself.
I remembered Mrs Reavey from Whitecross, whose sons were murdered by loyalists. She died a few years ago still waiting for Paisley to apologise for saying they were in the IRA when he knew well that they were not.
The poet Tom Paulin described him as “a complex and protean personality”. My friend Bill Brown, who has written a (yet to be published) book about being an acolyte of the big gangly young preacher as a youth, says there were always many Paisleys (though only ever one Eileen).
As a reporter on the beat, I met him many times but never had a conversation with him. Our mirror images were introduced once in the make-up room at the BBC in Belfast. We nodded, then turned and shook hands politely. He was still in his “never” days then.
A friend told me that he had told someone else, who told her, that my book Northern Protestants – An Unsettled People was a good book, though he didn’t agree with it. I admit it – I was thrilled.
Paisley was not the only armchair general who fired people up into sectarian hatred and then sat back to watch the flames. His most bigoted followers felt betrayed when he did a volte-face on no surrender and compromised with the enemy. He let them go, as he had let so many others go in the past.
The final television interview showed him an old man in failing health, disappointed that the power he finally gained had not lasted forever.
Best say of Paisley that he did harm, great harm, but he changed, and for that we must be grateful.