BELFAST (Reuters) - Ian Paisley, the firebrand preacher-politician who for decades brayed “No Surrender!” across Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide, died on Friday aged 88, in the province to which he, belatedly, helped bring peace.
Founder of his own church when, at 25, he judged mainstream Protestants too soft on fighting the devil’s work he saw in Roman Catholicism, Paisley’s Biblical fulminations against popes and Irish nationalists echoed among the bullets, bricks and bombs to form the soundtrack to 30 years of blood-letting.
Yet in old age he astonished the people of Britain and Ireland, who had grown used to the Reverend “Doctor No” and his litany of rejection. He agreed to lead the province alongside former IRA guerrillas, swallowing his dislike of a U.S.-brokered peace deal that gave Dublin a say in Northern Irish affairs.
It was a mark of his personal journey, on which he brought with him a loyal Protestant following, that even Catholic republicans prayed for his recovery when he fell gravely ill, and mourned his passing as a man who made peace in his lifetime.
“I have lost a friend,” former IRA commander Martin McGuinness said on Twitter.
Long a figure of fun on mainland Britain - a 1980s TV show caricatured him wearing a spiked, clerical “dog-collar” beneath his trademark white quiff - he saw himself as a loyal defender of Ulster Protestants’ links to the Crown, which had their Scots and English ancestors colonise Catholic Ireland 400 years ago.
But the venom of his visceral, vocal antipathy to all things Catholic - in 1988, he was hauled from his seat in the European Parliament, bellowing at the visiting Pope John Paul II that he was “the Anti-Christ” - was an integral part of the poisonous sectarian politics of “the Troubles”, in which over 3,600 died.
And the far-from-comic bigotry on which his politics thrived also helped alienate British support for the loyalist cause.
Even as other unionist leaders, cajoled from London, sought agreements with Catholic nationalists who wanted to unite with the Irish Republic to the south, Paisley was deploying his best pulpit voice and all of his 6-foot-5-inch (1.96 metre) frame to rally the faithful against fellow Protestant moderates.
He was instrumental, alongside paramilitary groups whose violence he forswore, in organising strikes that brought down Northern Ireland’s first power-sharing executive, set up in 1974 after the first wave of bloodshed that began in the late 1960s.
“Ulster Says No!” was his slogan when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed an Anglo-Irish treaty in 1985. Paisley rejected any dealings with the “rebel state” formed south of the border when the rest of Ireland broke from Britain in the 1920s.
“You have sold out Northern Ireland to the fiendish Republican scum!” he bellowed in the distinctive vowels of his native province from the steps of 10 Downing Street in 1993 after Thatcher’s successor there, John Major, had unveiled a further peace plan with Irish premier Albert Reynolds.
When it bore fruit, on Good Friday 1998, an agreement brokered by U.S. President Bill Clinton and his envoy George Mitchell called for militants to disarm and the province’s pro-British and pro-Irish parties to form a local administration backed by London and Dublin. Paisley called it “the greatest betrayal ever foisted ... on the unionist people”.
A lifelong teetotaller, he was later less than complimentary about Clinton when the president compared Northern Irish leaders to “a couple of drunks” unable to quite decide to leave the bar.
Yet in 2007, after years of haggling over power-sharing that saw the moderates on both sides penalised in elections and Prime Minister Tony Blair set to reimpose direct rule from London, it was Paisley, riding high with a majority of the unionist vote, who was to reach over to the hardline republicans of Sinn Fein and clinch a deal that, for many, confirmed an end to violence.
The man who had said Sinn Fein, political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), would have a say in running Northern Ireland “over our dead bodies”, quoted King Solomon from the Bible as he became first minister of the province with Sinn Fein’s McGuinness as his deputy:
“To everything there is a season ... A time to kill and a time to heal ... A time of war and a time of peace,” he told the Northern Ireland Assembly at Belfast’s Stormont Castle, at 81 his voice still firm, his bespectacled gaze still steely.
“I believe that Northern Ireland has come to a time of peace, a time when hate will no longer rule.”
Recalling the dead on both sides and his own past positions, he concluded: “It is a truism that no-one can ever have 100 percent of what they desire. They must make a verdict when they believe they have achieved enough to move things forward.”
Blair, in his memoirs, recalled of Paisley in 2007: “After a long and debilitating illness ... he had a sense of impending mortality, political and personal, and wanted to leave behind something more profound and enduring than ‘No surrender’.
“Ian was nothing if not a politician with his ear firmly tuned in to the people. In the course of late 2006 and early 2007, he heard the people telling him it was time for peace.”
Paisley’s year as first minister went on to be marked by what appeared the flowering of an extraordinarily warm double-act with McGuinness that saw them dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers” by people of the province eager for a new beginning, even if the embers of violence by hardliners on both sides still flickered.
Ian Richard Kyle Paisley was born on April 6, 1926, to a dissident Baptist minister, just as the division of Ireland had been sealed with six mainly Protestant northern counties, including the industrial hub Belfast, remaining part of Britain.
Having delivered his first sermon aged 16, the young Paisley, exasperated at faint hearts among mainstream Presbyterians, established his own Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster in 1951.
The church, which he led until 2008, holds to a literal acceptance of the Bible and from it Paisley campaigned on social as well as doctrinal issues - including a vain effort to reverse the legalisation in the 1970s of homosexual acts. His ever memorable slogan at the time was “Save Ulster from Sodomy”.
Paisley rose to political prominence already in the 1960s, at a time when a growing Catholic minority in Northern Ireland was becoming more vocal in complaining about inequalities and some were pressing to reunite the island under rule from Dublin.
The Reverend Ian Paisley became a familiar figure in the vanguard of Protestant protests against, for example, the flying of the Irish Republic’s tricolour flag in nationalist Catholic neighbourhoods or at marches of the Orange Order to celebrate Protestant victories over Catholic forces in the 17th century.
He was vilified as a rabble-rousing bigot by those who blamed him for fomenting violence; though he rejected the taking up of arms, he refused to accept concessions that might have placated the disenfranchised Catholic minority.
He was a hero to supporters who rejected a peaceful movement to ensure equal rights for Catholics - a policy his critics say helped radicalise nationalist opinion and set the stage for the re-emergence of the IRA, four decades after it had fought British troops and fellow Irish forces in the south.
Paisley was jailed twice in the 1960s, the first time for three months for protests he mounted against the “Rome-ish tendencies” of established Presbyterians - his church views any acceptance of Catholic practice as a breach with God - and later for six weeks for blocking a Catholic civil rights march.
In 1971, he founded the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), like his church a breakaway movement from the mainstream, in the political sphere the Ulster Unionists (UUP), who remained the dominant force in loyalist politics for the next three decades.
But from parliamentary seats in London or Strasbourg, it was Paisley who captured headlines with harangues in the cause of Ulster, or indeed Britain. Britons were bemused when he rose in the EU legislature to complain it was flying the British flag upside down - few compatriots knew there was a right way up.
It was the UUP, under Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble, who led the unionist camp into the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, a moment that left Paisley looking to some like as much a spent force as the gunmen and bombers. But the travails of power sharing, sniped at continuously by Paisley and the DUP, helped undermine Trimble and cost the UUP dear at the polls.
Paisley, though nearing 80 and in poor health, took full advantage of becoming the province’s biggest party. Yet even those closest to him were surprised by the way he turned full circle on his old self to embrace the deal with Sinn Fein.
He justified it as a necessary evil to avoid direct rule from London and said it guaranteed the province’s place in the union. Critics in his own ranks were swift to accuse him of compromising his principles to clear his path to power.
He stepped down after a year as first minister and was later made a life peer in the House of Lords as Baron Bannside. In Belfast, the coalition of the DUP and Sinn Fein still rules.
Though his life may leave more than its share of controversy, his legacy as a man who prized his refusal to compromise but finally led his followers into a pact with their bitterest enemies may shape Northern Ireland for years to come.
Paisley is survived by his wife Eileen and five children.
Writing by Conor Humphries and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall