paisleyIan Paisley in 2011. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod / Guardian


In a virtuous world human beings forgive each other. Some do so unconditionally even while they remain set up on by those they forgive. Others do so conditionally when forgiveness is asked for with repentance by those offending. The dividing line between them is probably the dividing line between heroic goodness and a more ordinary goodness. In the moral order forgiveness is obligatory. Forgetting is probably an optional extra.

Forgiveness, however, does not exclude history and oblige us to forget what it is all about. The honest recording of memory has its own moral imperative.

The death of Ian Paisley is occasion to reflect on these two important moral obligations and in the torrent of words which his passing has provoked there are many lapses of both in evidence.

Let me begin by exhorting that he be forgiven, even though he never asked for forgiveness. But I will not eulogise; rather, attempt to do justice in recording honestly what he did, what he said, and note as accurately as I canwhat the dreadful consequences were of both.

There has been speculation since his death – and before his death – as to his motives for his actions in the last ten or so years of his life. Was he really a peacemaker or did he finally come to the conclusion that the road on which he had spent his life had come to a dead end? Was coming to terms with his enemies and getting what seemed the best deal possible all that he could do? Unless we get a personal diary, or a reliable personal account of a conversation revealing his intimate thoughts on the matter, we are unlikely to be able to answer this question. An important fact of history, however, is that he did, willingly or unwillingly, play a critical role in returning Northern Ireland to the tolerable normality which its people now enjoy. But another fact of history, unpalatable though it may be, is that it was he who played an absolutely central role in the whole process, from its very beginning, by which Northern Ireland descended into the abyss of civil war and remained there for over 30 years with the loss of over 3000 lives, many of them totally innocent.

This morning I took from a small archive of cuttings which I keep, an article about Ian Paisley which I wrote back in December 1968 or early 1969. Just then he was no more that moderator of the small fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church of which he was the founder. I re-read this with some apprehension as to whether it would stand up as any kind of a prophetic anticipation of what was going to unfold in the years between then and now. On that count I am afraid it was mixed. On the other hand, it does stand as a permanent record of what this inflamatory man thought and said up to that time. When taken along with subsequent accounts of what he later did, it bears out the judgement that he was a key catalyst in provoking the suffering endured in Northern Ireland for those 30+plus years.

In the late 1960s, with the emergence of the Northern Irish Civil Rights Movement, a certain naive optimism led people to believe that rational politics, real economic opportunities, even simple pragmatism, would bring Ireland a more settled future in which North and South, Catholics and Protestants would live and work peacefully for the good of the whole people of Ireland. In 1968 the prime ministers of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic met for the first time since the establishment of the two political entities back in the early 1920s. The symbolism of this, the mutual good intentions of Terence O’Neill and Sean Lemass, the two in question, lead Irish people to imagine what was heretofore unimaginable.  It looked like the end of Ireland’s own Cold War.

Our imaginations, however, did not comprehend the hidden power of Ian Paisley nor the law of unintended consequences which his unimaginable bigotry was going to unleash in the form of the resurgence of the Irish Republican Army which it provoked.

The simple chain of events which unfolded in 1968-69, for which his leadership was the catalyst, set in train all the events which followed for the next 30 years. That chain was as follows: The rapprochement of North and South initiated by Sean Lemass and Terence O’Neill, combined with the peaceful pursuit of civil rights for Catholics in Northern Ireland, set Ian Paisley on the warpath; in doing so he mobilised the extreme Protestant elements in the province to oppose both O’Neill and the civil rights marches; violent clashes ensued while the Northern Irish police and its auxiliary force, the notorious “B Specials”, were clearly not only failing to protect peaceful protesters but were aiding and abetting those attacking them; at this point enter the IRA as a counter force to provide this protection;  with the two communities now at loggerheads, enter the British Army to try to keep them apart – which then becomes the number one target for the IRA. The Thirty Year War is now on. Things would not have gone down this road without the Paisley factor.

Back in December, 1968, in his Protestant Telegraph, he told his followers: “Essentially the ‘struggle’ in Ulster as we know it is a spiritual one. There are those in our province who suffer from guilty conscience; their attitude of mind is that we Protestants are invaders and have no right to be here. The Almighty does not make mistakes; He alone is infallible. Our presence in Ulster is no accident of history. We are a special people, not of ourselves but of divine mission.”

Does all that not sound a little like the ranting of the leader of the so-called Islamic State?

“Ulster”, Paisley continued, “is the last bastion of Evangelical Protestantism in Western Europe; we must not let drop the torch of Truth at this stage of the eternal conflict between Truth and Evil. Ulster arise and acknowledge your God.”

The arch enemy is, of course, the Roman Catholic Church, I wrote in that article in 1969. Allied to it Paisley saw the ecumenical movement of that time, and people like Terence O’Neill whom he saw as liberal unionists. The article continued: “The terror at the prospect of a liberalised and tolerant community which is reflected in the pages of the Protestant Telegraph is based on the fear that a liberalised community will bring about the destruction of the moral and religious standards of Bible Protestantism, the purity of its doctrine will be lost through the growth of tolerance. This is the basis of the intolerance of the Free Presbyterianism mentality.”

Paisley’s war required a myth. He had no difficulty embellishing the “Rome Rule” myth which already existed. “In 1955,” runs a Protestant Telegraph editorial, “Rome chose the IRA and guerrilla warfare as the means of achieving the goal. Today the process is not so blatant, but nonetheless dangerous; her current policy is peaceful penetration.” The Civil Rights Movement was categorised in this way: “The objects of the movement can be listed as follows: 1. To make evil seem righteous. 2. To display bloodstained Popery as democracy. 3. To show Irish republicanism as a British way of life.” It made little sense but it set the fires burning.

Terence O’Neill called him a dinosaur in the political campaign which followed within two months of those words being written. And so he was. But this dinosaur went on to bring O’Neill to his knees and then to found the political party which virtually wiped O’Neil’s Unionist Party off the political map. The religious rhetoric was toned down but that same fundamentalist religious spirit was at the heart of all that Ian Paisley did throughout his career.

Naively, in those months before the opposing floodgates of sectarian and republican violence opened, that article predicted that the end was then not far away for Ian Paisley, Ronal Bunting (his right-hand man at that time) and their movement. “There is a terrible hopelessness about the cause which they are supporting, and its whole basis is as relevant as the basis on which the (IRA) activists in the late 1950s were working” in their futile and furtive raids on border police stations. Hopeless it was, but that hopelessness did not prevent the chain of unintended consequences spinning out that dreadful story for another thirty years. The article concluded, “But although Paisleyism is doomed as the irrational movement that it is, it can still do grievous damage; it can wreck the political life of the province and the country with all the meaningless ferocity which any irrational monster can destroy the work of sincere and rational human endeavours.”

Paisleyism – he had added a new word to the lexicon of religion and politics – was doomed even though its remnants still persist. In his hearts of hearts Paisley himself may have accepted that.  In its virulent form, however, it lasted much longer than any of us ever dreamed it would back in 1968 or 1969. May he now rest in peace, at last.

Michael Kirke is a freelance writer based in Dublin. He blogs at Garvan Hill

Michael Kirke was born in Ireland. In 1966 he graduated from University College Dublin (History and Politics). In that year he began working on the sub-editorial desk of The Evening...