‘Never afraid to speak his mind’ – the Irish in Britain reflect on Paisley

‘Never afraid to speak his mind’ – the Irish in Britain reflect on Paisley

COMMUNITY leaders in Britain reflected on Dr Ian Paisley’s controversial legacy as the divisive politician turned peacemaker was laid to rest earlier today.

The funeral service for the former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and First Minister for Northern Ireland took place in private this morning, following the 88-year-old’s death on Friday, September 12.

“His presence was critical in bringing about the political transformation of Northern Ireland,” Chris Ruane MP, chair All Party Parliamentary Group on the Irish in Britain, told The Irish Post.

“He was driven by spiritual commitment – for better or worse,” he added.

“Never afraid to speak his mind, his faith stoked the flames of sectarianism. Later, it delivered wisdom.”

The Welsh MP, who has roots in Co. Galway, went on to recall his first meeting with Paisley in Westminster.

“As a newly-elected member of the House of Commons, I met the Rev Ian Paisley on my first day,” he said, “he was always larger than life - a giant of a man and a giant of a politician.”

Similar recollections have been shared across Britain and Ireland as the news of Paisley’s passing stoked vivid memories of the man who for years waged a ferocious and bitter war against the peace process in the North.

Born in Co. Armagh and raised in Ballymena, Co. Antrim, the DUP firebrand was a preacher before he became a politician, forming his Free Presbyterian Church at the age of 25.

But it was upon his election to parliament as MP for North Antrim in 1970 - a position he held for 40 years - that his reputation as a political extremist was rapidly and more widely cemented.

His well-documented opposition to the Catholic faith, power-sharing in the North and the most pivotal steps on the road to peace, including the Anglo Irish and Good Friday Agreements, mark a lengthy chapter in the politician’s controversial career.

But in 2007, at the age of 81, the ‘never man’ embarked on a remarkable transition, entering into a power-sharing partnership with arch enemies in the Sinn Fein party which paved the way for the devolution of power to the region.

“At the birth of the civil rights movement, Ian Paisley became a symbol of everything that was wrong with the Orange State in Northern Ireland – hostile to Catholics, locked in history and immune to change,” political campaigner Martin Collins told The Irish Post.

“And yet, his distrust of ’coat-trailing’ Unionism and frustration with the metropolitan consensus paradoxically opened his eyes to a bigger picture – a peace well-forged,” he added.

“He will be remembered as a symbol that change is always possible.”

For Irish in Britain CEO Jennie McShannon, Paisley should be remembered for his eventual contribution to the peace process and the fruits it has brought to the Irish community in Britain.

“Growing up in Belfast, I would never have imagined that I should have a sense of sadness at the passing of Ian Paisley,” Ms McShannon admitted.

“He was always known as an MP who assiduously served his individual constituents regardless of their background, but regrettably this sat at such odds with his political authority, which for so many decades reinforced and enflamed divisions within the north of Ireland.”

She added: “But Paisley showed true leadership in recognising the outcome of peacetime negotiations as a democratic process and taking the Democratic Unionist Party into power-sharing with Sinn Féin. This was truly remarkable and we should celebrate his courage and willingness to make such a shift for the good of all the people in Northern Ireland.”

She explained: “The Irish Community here in Britain have shared in the fruits of peace, so we hope that despite his passing, he can remain a symbol of what can be achieved.”

Paisley, who stepped down from politics in 2008, received a life peerage in 2010, joining the House of Lords as Baron Bannside of North Antrim in the County of Antrim.

Following the private funeral service held at his family home in east Belfast he was buried in Co. Down.

He is survived by his wife, Baroness Eileen Paisley and their five children.