Saturday, 13 September 2014

When "Dr. No" became "Dr. This-is-a-deal-we-can-live-with": reflections on the death of Ian Paisley

Earlier today, I learned of the death in Northern Ireland of Ian Paisley at the age of 88.  In the last few years since his retirement from politics, Mr. Paisley also held the title Lord Bannside.

For most of Mr. Paisley's career, as an evangelical preacher, as a far-right-wing politician (in the Northern Irish Parliament, the House of Commons, and the European Parliament), and as a "professional bigot", his impact on the wider community (of Northern Ireland, of the United Kingdom, of the European Union, and of the wider human family) was mostly negative.  Not only did he encourage high levels of sectarian bias against Roman Catholics, but he was known at times for casting a much wider net in his prejudices (even if anti-Catholicism was his specialty).

By his repeated refusals, over the years, to endorse any peace proposals for Northern Ireland that gave any significant role to the (mostly Catholic) Nationalist community, Mr. Paisley earned himself the nickname "Dr. No" among the political, religious, and media communities of both Ireland and Britain.

However, toward the end of the decade of the 2000s, a change began to appear in the attitudes of the (even then) octogenarian Paisley.  Negotiations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and between Unionist and Nationalist groups within Northern Ireland, led to some serious peace proposals, proposals that included power-sharing among the Unionist and Nationalist communities.  This time, Mr. Paisley did not reject the proposals out-of-hand.  In fact, he showed serious interest in the new proposals. 

After elections early in 2007, the new Parliament of Northern Ireland was seated, with a power-sharing executive that included Mr. Paisley as First Minister and with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein (traditionally affiliated with the IRA) as his deputy.  "Dr. No" became "Dr. This-is-a-deal-we-can-live-with".

In a real sense, the late Mr. Paisley comes across as a rather Dickensian character.  By this, I mean not just any Dickensian character, but one specific Dickensian character:  Ebenezer Scrooge.  Just as Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" was the object of a remarkable transformation of his attitudes late in his life, so was Mr. Paisley. 

Obviously, the bigotry of his early life (and, indeed, of the majority of his public life) should be firmly criticised and condemned by all people of good will.  Still, let's not minimise the reality of his transformation. 

The message of Mr. Paisley's later years runs in stark contradiction of the message of an old proverb.  You can indeed teach old dogs new tricks.  And, not only that,  the "old dogs" can have real fun performing their new tricks.  (In the language of Christian faith, that's called "grace".)

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