The career of the Rev Ian Paisley, who has died aged 88, arced from origins as fiery preacher and street agitator, through decades when his harassment helped undermine mainstream unionist leaders who attempted compromise with nationalists.
But aged 81 he won praise inside and outside Ireland and made global headlines for sharing the top post in a peacetime Stormont with former IRA leader Martin McGuinness. His image collapsed once more after lengthy and vindictive 2014 television interviews with journalist Eamonn Mallie, his last public platform, when he denigrated his successors as leaders of the party and church he founded.
In his long prime, he preached with more drama than any contemporary in the western world, and devoted abundant talent to relentless negativity. When IRA violence might have brought wide sympathy for unionism, many in Britain and other countries knew of only one Northern Ireland politician, certainly only one unionist, and considered Paisley a byword for antiquated prejudice. He took that as a tribute.
In the years preceding the Troubles his coat-trailing demonstrations and sectarian rhetoric made him a menacing and destabilising figure to most Catholics, and a considerable section of Protestants. He told his people they were doomed, and he was their only hope. But he topped every European election he fought, taking nearly 60 per cent of the unionist vote in 1984, which entitled him to call himself the voice of Protestant Ulster.
A self-proclaimed bigot, he once interrupted a speech by Pope John Paul II by calling the pontiff the antichrist. He said he considered all Catholics to be members of the Irish Republican Army, which he branded as a collective of terrorists.
Although he preached against the use of force in his church, his acidic words carried weight. On several occasions, his sermons caused riots. Rev. Paisley was said to be the target of multiple assassination attempts, and a sniper’s bullet once penetrated his car and missed him by inches.
In the 1990s, Rev. Paisley refused to participate in a U.S. effort led by the envoy Mitchell to craft a peace accord between the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland. The agreement — meant to create a power-sharing executive position and foster positive relations between the two factions — called for a disarmament of militant groups, mainly the IRA.
Rev. Paisley said he would not be party to any negotiations involving Sinn Féin. The document was completed without Rev. Paisley’s input and was later known as the Good Friday agreement, for the date in April 1998 it was signed.
For their work leading the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement’s ratification, two moderate Northern Irish politicians, David Trimble of the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party and John Hume of the Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party, received the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize.
But the award, and the peace agreement’s slow path to success, cost them politically. In 2003 elections, both parties lost majority status in the Northern Irish assembly. The reversal of fortunes led Rev. Paisley’s party, the DUP, to become the biggest in the country. Sinn Féin also benefited by winning new seats in the Assembly to become the second-biggest party.
Rev. Paisley’s newfound power made him instrumental in moving the peace process forward. By the early 2000s, the IRA began to put down its arms. The sectarian strife had killed an estimated 3,500 people. The thaw in relations between Catholics and Protestants allowed Rev. Paisley to agree in 2007 to form an alliance with Sinn Féin negotiator Martin McGuinness. The unlikely pair shared equal power of the country’s domestic affairs, with Rev. Paisley as first minister and McGuinness as deputy first minister.
He stepped down as first minister in 2008 and began to retire from public life amid health problems. In 2010, he left the British House of Commons; his son, Ian Paisley Jr., won his seat. Survivors include his wife of 57 years, the former Eileen Cassells; five children; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Ian Paisley’s contribution to peace, after all the years of division and difference, was decisive and determinative, former British prime minister Tony Blair said in 2008. “The man famous for saying no will go down in history for saying yes.”