I think of that brave man Paisley, eyeless
In Gaza, with a daisy chain of millstones
Round his neck; groping, like blind Samson,
For the soapy pillars and greased poles of lightning
To pull them down in rains and borborygmic roars
Of rhetoric. (There but for the grace of God,
W R Rodgers Home Thoughts from Abroad
Those lines come from the mid-60s, years before the world heard of the demagogue preacher with a speciality in rooting out Babylonian whores hiding under Roman cassocks. In 1988, he was forcibly ejected from the European Parliament for shouting at Pope John Paul II 'I denounce you as the Antichrist.' Fiercely loyal, in his idiosyncratic way, to the empire and the monarch – he was after all a member of her Privy Council – he made a career out of biblical scorn for the unrighteous, deep loathing of sodomy and a good head for business.
And then, in his eighties, ten years past the biblical appointed age, the old firebrand began to mellow. In 2006 he went to meet the Archbishop of Armagh, the Pope’s main man in Ireland, and they sat down to tea together. The following year, he almost took Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s arm from its socket with a ferocious handshake. That was the year he began a career as First Minister of Northern Ireland, running the statelet with Martin McGuinness as his deputy, a man he cordially hated.
But somehow, Paisley and McGuinness worked well together. The Chuckle Brothers they were called, an attempt to present them as two buffoons out of their depth, but for ordinary people, it was an endearing image, a tribute to a pair who had brought their respective sides with them in an unlikely peace. There were elements in Unionism who viewed Paisley as a traitor, just as there were nationalists who were appalled that Sinn Fein appeared to have shelved their aspiration for Irish unity and gave support to the strongly Protestant police force. Those elements still exist.
It would be easy to be scornful of Paisley’s late-life conversion to democracy, a way of thinking he showed little respect for in the past. But then, Sinn Fein, the political party with whom he found himself running his little polity, had no great track record in that regard either.
However, at least in Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein had two men of extraordinary perseverance and courage. They managed to turn what was essentially a single issue group with a tendency to view success in terms of the amount of mayhem they could cause, into a genuine political party with widespread community support. And since coming into the blustery Stormont tent, Sinn Fein ministers have earned a reputation as highly competent, hardworking and cooperative.
The Ulster experiment is a unique form of democracy. Normally, when people or policies are in dispute, some middle ground is sought, some agreement with which all sides can work. What began seven years ago in Belfast was quite different: Sinn Fein still wanted a united Ireland; the Unionists were determined to remain part of Great Britain. There was and still is no middle ground: instead there was an agreement to work together within tightly specified guidelines for the greater good of a community that had suffered too much.
One of the dangers to the success of the venture was any kind of looking back. Gerry Adams still says he was never a member of the Provisional IRA, but few believe him; as a young man, Martin McGuinness was the IRA leader in Derry. Ian Paisley had to swallow all the words he used when swearing that he would never sup with such devils, just as nationalists had to forget the B-Specials and Burntollet and Bloody Sunday and every humiliation they suffered for more than half a century.
And there were people on both sides who had to endure seeing those responsible for the death or maiming of a member of their family, walking the streets - perhaps even in the employ of the government.
We are told that his former allies and henchmen deserted Paisley, that he died a lonely man. After learning of his death, McGuinness left a Sinn Fein Congress to speak of him as a friend.
For much of his career, Ian Paisley held Christianity up to ridicule. It would be nice to think that in his final years the clergyman half of him paid greater heed to the exhortations of the Jewish rabbi who preached peace and forgiveness two thousand years ago. Vicisti, Galilæe.
Frank O'Shea is a retired Canberra school teacher.
Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness image by Albert Gonzalez Farran/Flickr Creative Commons