After many turbulent decades of politics and controversy, the life of Ian Paisley is finally quietening, and perhaps close to permanent rest.
With his family at his bedside, the 85-year-old former First Minister of Northern Ireland is being treated in hospital after suffering heart problems. If this is indeed the end, the obituaries will no doubt reflect on how Paisley so powerfully embodied the historical forces that swept his nation.
Most of Paisley’s public life is inseparable from the violent, harrowing years of the Troubles. As the demagogic leader of hard-line Protestantism and unionism, Paisley inflamed hatred and deepened divisions between the sectarian groups of Northern Ireland.
Whether he was hurling snowballs at moderate Irish politicians, denouncing Pope John Paul II as the Anti-Christ or organising paramilitary thugs, Paisley stood at the forefront of the conflict between Protestant unionists and Catholic republicans that led Northern Ireland into virtual civil war.
The horror of this conflict can barely be expressed or comprehended. Between the late 1960s and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, Northern Ireland could not have resembled less the small part of a modern democratic state that it in fact was. Instead, it seemed ‘Britain’s Vietnam’ – a guerrilla warzone sinking into a grim and bloody quagmire.
The events of this period were appalling in the extreme: the massacre of unarmed civilians on Bloody Sunday in 1972, the hunger strikes and excrement-smeared walls of the notorious Maze Prison, the IRA bombing campaigns, the assassination attempts on British Prime Ministers. The death toll mounted year after year; by the end of the Troubles, 3,500 lives had been lost.
Paisley has to share responsibility for this tragedy. He stridently opposed attempts to establish power-sharing government between unionists and republicans, to the extent that he was dubbed ‘Dr No’.
This blind obstinacy prolonged sectarian conflict by frustrating diplomatic efforts to locate political compromise and bring an end to the violence. Meanwhile, Paisley’s mad outpourings of rhetorical invective fed constant fuel to the raging flames of hatred.
But then the unthinkable happened. Though Paisley had previously rallied against the historic Good Friday Agreement, in 2006 he abandoned his opposition to power-sharing with republicans and entered government with his former archenemies in Sinn Féin.
Paisley became First Minister and to the astonishment of everyone, forged a strong relationship with the Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister, ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness.
These two former representatives of opposing extremes, both of whom had previously spent time behind bars, were soon laughing together at public events and working effectively as a coalition. The bemused media nicknamed the happy pair ‘the Chuckle Brothers’.
The problem for the historian or commentator is how to pass judgement on such a contradictory life and career.
Though Paisley is presently an ailing elder statesman, his persistent incitement of fear and hatred during the Troubles should neither be forgotten or forgiven. His later role in conciliation was in part the solution to a problem that he helped create.
It is perhaps also right to be weary of Paisley’s motives for changing course. As a man with a raging ego, Paisley no doubt recognised power-sharing as a sure route to a place in the history books.
As an experienced political operator, it is likely he recognised his obstinacy was becoming worryingly out of step with public opinion.
But his motives diminish in importance when compared with the legacy of his decision. By surmounting his own opposition, he immeasurably strengthened the peace deal and helped steer Northern Ireland towards a more hopeful future. That is reason enough to wish him well.