Today I learned of the death of Ian Paisley and I am in mourning for the passing of a great, albeit flawed, man. Paisley, more than any would have recognized both the flawed (as are we all) part of his character and that he was also a sinner saved by grace who had been called first and foremost to live and preach the gospel.
By making this post, I am going somewhat against the grain. The last tribute in my blog (Robin Williams) was easy insofar many of my Facebook friends had already commented favourably but, in the case of Ian Paisley, no-one has, and the references I could find that reflected on his life and death were often negative. Given he often came across as loud, overbearing, divisive, bigoted, abrasive, rude and intolerant, it is no wonder. Media reporting has been mixed with some critical comments being made. Even when politicians who knew him have paid tributes, as usually happens, praise has sometimes been guarded. Perhaps the nicest comments were from one time arch enemy, Martin McGuiness, who stated that both he and the peace process had lost a friend. Interestingly, Tony Blair and Peter Hain, who, significantly, knew more than most what went on in the negotiations toward and aftermath of the Northern Ireland power sharing agreement, were complimentary.
It would have been easier for me to say nothing and in doing so retain rather than lose friends, but that is not my way and neither was it Paisleys, who first and foremost was a man of principle, guided by his strong Christian beliefs. Before I proceed, I should lay down some caveats. I do not have the desire or energy to go through Paisleys long career (I first came across him as teenager), besides which there is much in the media that will give that information. Neither do I know enough to come up with a fully accurate and balanced picture of a man that was undoubtedly complex. I will leave a full analysis of his life and contributions to humanity to others and instead provide my own impressions.
Paisley was a man people tended to either love or loathe. Given his opposition to homosexuality and Catholicism, to name but two of many things it seemed that he was opposed to, it is no surprise when those who felt at the end of his displeasure would find it hard to speak positively concerning his character and intentions. Yet he was a popular, even though forthright, preacher who felt to preach the gospel was his main calling, and this he did superbly well. As a preacher myself, I can unashamedly say that I share many of his theological views. He became a politician because he felt the Unionist majority in Northern Ireland were being dealt a raw deal, along with responding to the IRA terrorism that played such a significant part in Northern Ireland life in recent years, and became popular political figure among those who had found its champion.
It was quite clear that he had close, warm relationships with family and friends, who had deep respect and affection for him. Many could testify to his sense of humour, his humility, his love for simple pleasures and pious devotion, and his warmth and compassion. As a constituency MP / MEP, the general consensus is that he was conscientious in carrying out his duties, even toward those who opposed him, which is all the more remarkable given that he was a prominent leadership, both as a politician and a pastor. Less well known is that on his travels, and he had traveled widely, he had a devoted following in many places he visited outside the United Kingdom. One of my Indian friends, for example, has been particularly influenced by him, whose son proudly bears his name.
Paisley’s greatest legacy perhaps was his contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process. My own take is while he was known as the “no” and “never” man, it was only because he was a man of principle. It was when he saw the IRA giving up its terrorism and wanting to engage in the democratic process and the political climate was right, he shocked the world by fully engaging in a power sharing agreement that involved the very people he had fought hard against for much of his life. While I accept there will be different perspectives on the matter, it is generally agreed that this peace process has worked and is working and that Paisley was one of the major instruments in making this happen. As a community activist, I see Ian Paisley as a role model. He was first and foremost guided by his faith but it was a faith that informed his activism and which gave him the strength to do what he felt needed to be done.
I will leave the last word to the big man himself, one who I have no doubt was guided by his faith ever since being converted to Christianity as a boy. Speaking about death during one of his sermons, he said: “If you hear in the press that Ian Paisley is dead, don’t believe a word of it. I’ll be more alive than ever… I’ll be singing as I sang never before.” One day we all have to face God the judge and if his words on Desert Island Discs in 1988 were anything to go by, he felt he could do so confidently, not because he was any better than gays or Catholics or anyone else, but because he was a helpless sinner who had been saved by the grace of God and as a result of what Jesus accomplished when he died and rose again.