‘Doc, I salute you - you were the Big Man’

I count it one of the privileges of my life to have known Ian Paisley as well as I did over such a long period.

His passing last week meant the end of an era. Already there have been numerous attempts to re-write his life, even in the short time that has elapsed since his death.

He was a man steeped in history, both church history and political history. He had a massive personal library; he would return from a summer break spent in bookshops with dozens of second hand books, mostly puritan, some political. To understand him, we need to know the history.

On political issues, his view was that the Protestant people in Ireland, historically, were under threat; he had read of the massacre of Protestants in 1641, the great Siege of Londonderry in 1689, the setting up of the Northern Ireland State in 1921 and the attitude to it both by the Republic and a number of Nationalists within Northern Ireland’s boundaries, etc.,

This all ensured that the so called ‘siege mentality’ was alive and well not just in the mind of Ian Paisley but in the minds of hundreds of thousands of Ulster Protestants he came to represent - and for very good reason given those historical events.

The context of physical insecurity and of religious persecution framed not just the man but the community he was born into. When the failed IRA campaign of 1956-1962 was still very fresh in the memory and there was the outbreak of protest and violence in 1969/70, there was no doubt, in his mind, that Ulster had to be defended.

Aggressive violence by Irish Republicans and a weak response by Unionists had to be confronted and replaced by stronger opposition. Once this context is understood, then people should be able to comprehend Ian Paisley’s motivation. He knew that there would have to be an accommodation at some time, but it had to be the right one.

Some people ask: why couldn’t he have settled earlier - for example in 1974 when there was a power sharing experiment? They overlook the fact that the IRA was still actively murdering people and just two years earlier there had been the highest death tally in the Troubles - nearly 500 people murdered in a single year; not to mention the fact that the IRA was adamantly opposed to Sunningdale. For him, terror had to be defeated not appeased.

Political talks were another area where Ian Paisley was misunderstood. From 1979 through to the mid 1990s, Ian Paisley, far from being opposed to talking, actually was involved in each series of talks that were held. It’s not a case of ‘Bad Paisley then, Good Paisley now’. He was determined that he would never sign up to a bad deal but was prepared to get a good one.

While the IRA remained active and killing people, he would not contemplate their inclusion in discussions. When they finally realised they couldn’t defeat the democratically expressed will of the people and ceased their violence, he then demanded that their political apologists in Sinn Fein support the rule of law and the police. Once these things were in place, Paisley was up for the deal. For Ian Paisley, it really was a case of: “To get the right answer, try asking the right question”.

His Protestant convictions never wavered. His preaching of Christ crucified as the only way to Heaven was in keeping with many great gospel preachers down through the centuries.

Doc, I salute you. You were, indeed, the Big Man. In the words of the great hymn you loved to lead people in singing: “Till we meet again, God be with you till we meet again”.