Ian Paisley

By Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams (for the Guardian)

As I meandered my carefree way to school, I and other pedestrian scholars passed the election offices, in a shop, of the local republican candidate Liam McMillen. It was 1964. It was Belfast. The Irish national flag adorned the shop window. We paid little attention to this until Ian Paisley announced that he would march on to the Falls Road to remove “this foreign flag” unless the RUC removed it.

The RUC promptly obliged, smashing the shop front in the process and swamping the neighbourhood with armoured cars and riot police. The people in the election office did what anyone else would do in the circumstances. They got another flag and put it back in the window. The RUC returned and days of street rioting ensued.

These events whetted my political appetite, radicalised a generation of young people like myself, and were my first acquaintance with Ian Paisley. For his part Paisley was one in a long line of firebrand fundamentalist protestant clerics who ignited and enflamed Anglo-Irish politics at different times in our history by playing the sectarian card.

The result was to impede or delay progress, to polarise our society, and to incite violence and tension. So Ian Paisley was not the exception. Though he was exceptional.

In 1946, two years before I was born, he was ordained at the independent Ravenhill Evangelical Mission church in east Belfast. And in the early 50s, after a dispute with the Presbyterian church, he helped to establish the Free Presbyterian church. In 1954 he received an honorary doctor of divinity degree from the Bob Jones University in South Carolina. In 1971 he founded the Democratic Unionist party.

He was also associated with a number of hardline organisations including Ulster Protestant Action; Protestant Unionists; Ulster Protestant Volunteers; Ulster Workers’ Council; Vanguard; Ulster Defence Association; and Ulster Resistance.

Ian Paisley led the efforts to topple every single unionist leader, from Terence O’Neill in the late 60s to David Trimble a few years ago. His demand that “O’Neill must go” or “Faulkner must go”, right up to the modern day, cut down generations of unionist leaders. So Ian Paisley was a busy man.

He and I were not to meet until recent times and he did not talk to me directly until March 26 2007, when we agreed the arrangements which led to the re-establishment of the political institutions here.

In and around 2003 and 2004, when it was obvious that David Trimble was not going to deliver, some of us formed a view that our big challenge was to make a deal with Ian Paisley. By 2004 it was my opinion that he would do a deal. We had to make sure that the timing and substance was right. By 2005 and 2006 I had warmed to the view that a Paisley deal was the best option. After all, who could out-Paisley Ian Paisley? It needed him to bring unionism into the new dispensation.

Of course I could not be certain that he would come on board, but in fairness, when he did it was with grace and good humour. That humour and his civilised accord with Martin McGuinness went against the grain of those who had been reared in the image of the old Paisley.

I am often asked what made him do the deal. He himself explains that he had no alternative, that if he did not accept the St Andrews agreement the British and Irish governments were going to move ahead despite unionism.

I think that’s only part of the story. His wife, Eileen, and his family undoubtedly played a big role in his decision, and I think his willingness to reach out and to work positively with Sinn Féin was a genuine endeavour to make things better for the people who live here.

Did he do everything that was required of him during his term as first minister? No. He was restrained, in part perhaps by his own history, and by some within his party who don’t like the new political arrangements. It is ironic that a “Paisley must go” campaign started less than a year after he became first minister and for the last few months there has been a growing leadership crisis within the DUP, culminating in Tuesday’s retirement announcement.

Will I miss him? Well, maybe I can get to know him better now that he is retiring to the backbenches. I would like that. He is a fascinating figure, with many facets to his character. In my dealings with him I have always found him cordial, good-humoured and respectful.

But of course the main focus has to be on delivering and on working with the new DUP leader, who will also have challenges in the time ahead. For Sinn Féin the peace process is certainly a marathon. Ian Paisley’s retirement makes it a relay race for the Democratic Unionist party. Will we succeed in getting to the finishing line? Yes. That is one lesson that Ian Paisley teaches all of us. Never say “never, never, never”.

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© 2008 Irish Republican News