“If my mammy was alive, she’d be dancing in the streets.” So said a woman who grew up in Republican West Belfast to me earlier today on hearing the news that the Reverend Ian Paisley had died. “It’s very sad”, said Carol from the Shankill when I asked for her views earlier. Such views are simplistic on the passing of Ian Snr, but they encompass the broad spectrum of thinking when it comes to the life – and the death of the giant old grandfather of Unionism.
And that would be grand. Everyone has their own thoughts and opinions when a controversial figure dies. Except, some of the more surprising tributes came from quarters today, from people whom, shall we say, had more than one axe to grind for the Roaring Reverend.
Not least from Sinn Féin, where Martin Mc Guinness declared that he had lost “a friend”. Forgive us, Lord, for being sceptical at the thought of a former IRA commander whose army would have liked nothing better than to put a bullet in the back of Paisley’s head at times, grieving for the loss of his mate today.
Old DUP colleagues rolled themselves out for the eulogies too; colleagues who Paisley had accused in an interview with Eamonn Mallie broadcast on the BBC, of wanting him gone as leader of the party, and whose wife Eileen had stern words for when she accused their treatment of her husband as being “assassinated by word and deed…”
Assassination is something older Catholics in the North might identify with when they think of Big Ian.
There was the character assassination of farmer Eugene Reavey, a man named under Parliamentary privilege in 1999 by Paisley, who accused him of being “a well-known republican” who “set up the Kingsmills massacre”. These allegations had been supplied to Paisley by the UDR, although he claimed it was an RUC dossier. Mr Reavey was innocent of the claims made against him, and this was confirmed by the RUC, and by the sole survivor of Kingsmill, Alan Beck. It was a disgusting claim by Paisley, not least because Eugene Reavey’s brothers had been murdered the day before Kingsmill, and that when he was grieving and traumatised on his way to the hospital to see his brothers’ bodies; Reavey got out and assisted those injured in Kingsmill by directing emergency services to the scene. Paisley was urged to apologize to Eugene Reavey. He stubbornly refused to do so.
Then there were the loss of life assassinations, which took place in a literal background of blood and thunder, where Loyalists, whipped up into a frenzy, took things that were preached at them, and kept those words in their heads as they went out to murder and maim the easiest targets they could find. There should be no denial of responsibility for the many hundreds of people who might be alive now, but for the words of Paisley, and people like him. Of course, responsibility for carrying out such acts lies with perpetrators – but, filled with hatred and indoctrination, and public acts of rabble rousing, incitement is a dangerous thing. Paisleys well-rehearsed line was “reap what you sow”. In 1986, after warning that Northern Ireland was on the verge of “hand to hand fighting in the street, he had these words for the police officers in attendance; “Don’t come crying to me if your homes are attacked. You will reap what you sow”.
“Reap what you sow” was also a phrase Paisley used at a particularly bad year at Drumcree. Three Catholic children, Mark, Jason and Richard Quinn, were murdered as they slept in their beds by members of the UVF in Portadown in 1998. Paisley did what he always did – distanced himself from the violence after the act, while refusing to accept any responsibility for the part he played in whipping the tensions up in the first place. Despite retrospectively denouncing the murders as “repugnant”, he then went on to shamefully say “The IRA have carried out worse murders than we had in Ballymoney over and over again.”
There was the Ulster Workers Strike, the Anglo Irish Agreement, the shouts of “Never, never, never, never”, to thousands as they attended the Ulster Says No rally at Belfast City Hall. There was “Save Ulster from Sodomy”, and his knowledge of the smuggling of a 15 year old Catholic schoolgirl to Scotland in pursuit of a “religious conversion.”
Then, his early links with the UVF, after which one convicted member stated “I am terribly sorry I ever heard of that man Paisley or decided to follow him”, and his establishment of other paramilitary groupings, Third Force, and Ulster Resistance.
Ian Paisley was a bigot who claimed that Catholics “breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin” – who dubbed the pope “the antichrist”, and who negated any share of responsibility when innocent Catholics were murdered in blatant sectarian attacks in the years that followed.
While it is true that Paisley eventually took his seat in Government with Sinn Fein in 2007, it is worth reflecting that he also played his part in prolonging violence by spewing out hate filled bile which fanned the flames of hatred among working class Loyalists – and republicans – which ultimately ended in loss of life, convictions and jail time, while Paisley washed his hands off the whole affair.
He, by all accounts was warm to people in a personal setting, and those who knew him will remember him for that, as they are entitled to do. There is nothing wrong with finding the human behind the bluster. But, when that bluster influences other people, we are right to remember it too.
Ian Paisley was a complex character. We may never get to the bottom of him. But, we owe it to ourselves, and the history of this country to remember him as he was, not who we would have liked him to be.
Paisley himself wouldn’t have wanted to be made a saint. That would have been too “antichrist” for him.