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Ian Paisley: How The North’s Dark Star Became a Prince of Peace: A lifelong journey from firebrand to peacemaker

By Niall O’Dowd

history in the making. Without Paisley there would be no power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. No other political leader, like Nixon going to China, had built up the credibility with the hardliners that allowed him to do a deal with the hated Sinn Féin. Once Paisley had been the dark star of Irish politics, bitterly opposed to any com-

Clark were ejected from power once Paisley turned on them. was at the Battle of the Boyne site The man himself, it seemed, was never in Oldbridge, County Meath, 30 for turning. He brought down the 1974 miles from Dublin in May 2007 Sunningdale Agreement and attacked the when Ian Paisley as the First Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 feroMinister of Northern Ireland made ciously. His fiery oratory which stopped a visit at the invitation of then Irish just short of advocating violence nonetheleader Bertie Ahern. less led many to take up arms. It was an extraordinary time, when In the American context he was a power-sharing government had pure Bible belt. He had interesting risen from the ashes of the old links to Bob Jones University in Stormont in Belfast and Ian Paisley South Carolina where he got his and Martin McGuinness shared doctorate. It was as fundamentalist a power. Bible belt college as could be imagThe Battle of the Boyne was the ined, often accused of outright iconic Ulster Unionist battlefield as racism. Paisley once saw it and the sacred as Gettysburg or Normandy born-again Baptists in the South as a beaches to Americans. potentially lucrative source of fundIt was unthinkable that a Protestant ing for his political party, but it leader of Northern Ireland would be never worked out that way. officially invited to the battlefield I once gatecrashed one of their where Catholic hopes of independevents in Northern California and ence had died rather like the French saw the preacher Paisley in full flow. inviting the British to Waterloo. It was quite a sight as the Book of Yet here was Paisley, still with a Revelations got a work-out and the booming voice, though he was 81 at audience was worked into a frenzy. the time, physically dwarfing everySuch a preacher’s gift caused one around him. many problems when The Troubles As he walked around the battlefield Dr. Paisley eventually said yes to sharing power with Sinn started. But in later years, driven I you had the deep sense of witnessing Féin at Stormont in 2007 and became First Minister with think (as many other leaders were), history that the 350-year-old battle Martin McGuinness as his deputy. The two are pictured by the notion of not allowing The was finally being reduced to an histor- in New York City on their first U.S. trip together. Troubles to feed into an endless loop ical artifact, not a yearly rally cry for more promise on Northern Ireland being for future generations, he saw making bigotry. British. He was there from the very beginpeace as his priority. As Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs ning of The Troubles. He was in the tradiHe came to America during the IRA Charlie Flanagan noted on Paisley’s passtion of Hugh “Roaring” Hanna, a fundaceasefire phase, and through a strange ing, it was truly historic. mentalist preacher of the late 19th century twist he and I arrived at a post-speech Flanagan said, “I recall especially that who opposed Home Rule and the pope in event as the first people there. For ten historic occasion when Dr. Paisley and his equal measure. minutes we stood around awkwardly wife Eileen took part in the opening of the In 1963, he led a protest march at the making very small talk. He seemed very Battle of the Boyne heritage site. That day lowering of the Union Jack to pay ill at ease outside his normal environment represented what many had worked so respects to deceased Pope John XXIII. A and he bolted the Irish-American dinner long to achieve, cooperation between year later he caused a riot when demandas soon as he could. North and South with recognition of our ing that an Irish tricolor be taken down in But when the opportunity to grasp shared history and heritage. On that occaWest Belfast. In 1966, he announced the peace came he took it, much to my sursion, Dr. Paisley spoke of his love for ‘this creation of a loyalist group to protest the prise I have to say. I had pegged him as an island we jointly hold together.’ He spoke Irish Civil Rights movement. irredentist Bible-belter whose prejudice of how he wanted ‘the best for the people He saw off successive Unionist leaders against Catholics was too deep-seated to of every part of this island.’” when they dared to reach out. Terence brook compromise. It was certainly a moment to recognize O’Neill, Brian Faulkner, James Chicester Though he did not serve very long as

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34 IRISH AMERICA OCTOBER / NOVEMBER 2014

Profile for Irish America Magazine

Irish America October / November 2014  

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