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Expert Comment: Ian Paisley

Michael Holmes - Seminar Wednesday 17 September 2014

Following the death of Ian Paisley, Dr Michael Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Liverpool Hope, recalls an encounter with the preacher-turned-politician.

I never met Ian Paisley, but I did see him in action once. In 1985, in my final year as an undergraduate in Trinity College Dublin, I joined a TCD Politics Society trip to the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont on the outskirts of Belfast. These were very different times. The Troubles were still destroying lives – this was less than a year after an IRA bomb had hit the Tory Party conference hotel in Brighton, killing five and almost taking the life of Margaret Thatcher. The Assembly that existed in 1985 was very different to today’s institution. It was boycotted by all Nationalist parties, and was utterly dominated by various Unionist parties.

I remember that in our group of students, I was the only one wearing a suit, but I did manage to offset that by having my hair dyed blond with purple stripes. I remember our group had a meeting with the Speaker of the Assembly, Jim Kilfedder of the Ulster Populist Unionist Party. He asked whether any of us was a member of a political party, and to my surprise I was the only one who said ‘yes’. He asked at a later stage who could remember the names of the Hunger Strikers who had died. All in our group could remember the first few names – Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh – then we quickly began to trail off. Thinking he had made his point about how the Hunger Strikes would soon fade from memory, Kilfedder went on. But the only one of our group who actually came from Northern Ireland was a very good friend of mine. He was sitting beside me, and I can remember him reciting under his breath the name of every one of the ten who died. That made so much more of an impression on me than did Kilfedder.

And I remember attending a session of the Assembly, where we witnessed the Reverend Ian Kyle Paisley in action. He was one of the most impressive political orators I have ever seen. He spoke for about five minutes on the topic at hand, and you would have sworn that if people did not do what he was urging, then fire and brimstone and eternal damnation was on its way for us in the next bus, you could be sure of it. He was predicting an apocalyptic outcome. And the subject? The fact that the European Community was planning to sell butter to the Soviet Union. I could recognise the political brilliance of the man, and I could also clearly see the political danger.

There is no doubt that Paisley ended up playing a role in the tentative transition to peace in Northern Ireland, and that deserves acknowledgement. But to my mind, there is equally no doubt that in an earlier part of his career he helped prolong and even worsen and deepen the tragedy of Ireland, and any commentary on the man must mention that. I am by no means singling out Paisley as a Unionist: I feel the same, for instance, about Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness. When someone who has urged violence changes their mind and starts to work for peace, that is to be welcomed. But I still vastly prefer those who have never called for death and destruction, and who have always sought the path of peace. I hope that Paisley ends up being remembered as someone who eventually saw the light of peace, not as someone who for so long sought to quench that light.

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