Since the death of Ian Paisley last Friday, the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, he has had his political record lauded across the establishment, including by David Cameron. Yet this has perhaps painted the monolith of Unionist politics in a more magnanimous light than he deserves. After all, the tangled history of Northern Ireland is undeniably one of atrocities committed on both sides, and we should not forget how Paisley helped prolong the conflict, despite his eventual move to heal those wounds. As founder and leader of the dominant Democratic Unionist Party, Paisley was an instrumental figure during the Troubles, with his hard-line stance standing in the way of democratic progress. His campaign against the peaceful partnership proposed by the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 arguably provoked one of the bloodiest attacks of the conflict, and this is merely a single case where his pigheadedness reinforced the brutal deadlock suffered by Northern Ireland for decades. As a strong advocate of both religious intolerance and the criminalisation of homosexuality, Paisley also held many personal opinions entirely anathema to the values of the United Kingdom today. Yet on the wake of his death both his bigotry and his political failings are being brushed under the carpet, in what initially appears an unreasonably rose-tinted move.
However, Paisley’s shortcomings are overshadowed by a startling turnaround towards the end of his career, that constituted a significant contribution to securing a peaceful future for Northern Ireland. In 2005 Paisley’s DUP entered a coalition with Sinn Féin, allowing the second largest party into government for the first time. This was both a difficult and morally ambiguous decision due to Sinn Féin’s close links with the IRA, the republican terrorist organisation responsible for much bloodshed. But by co-operating with Sinn Féin Paisley was instrumental in creating what a century of conflict had failed to achieve – a Northern Ireland where both unionist and republican views are respected in politics. Paisley’s Sinn Féin coalition proved that the obstinate and prejudiced establishment had finally conceded that however morally indefensible the actions of the opposition, it would be foolish, dangerous and undemocratic to continue to ignore the voice of republicanism.
We should be grateful that even a man as militant and unreasonable as Paisley had the moral courage, at the crucial moment, to put his beliefs behind him in order to secure peace and stability for his country. After so many decades of violence, his decision was undoubtedly for the greater good. Paisley may have been small-minded, but whereas his bigoted beliefs belong to a different era, it is his legacy to Northern Ireland which matters today. Neither side involved in the Troubles is guiltless, but it took one man to concede to compromise in order to put those troubles behind. It was thus correct of Cameron to laud the achievements of Paisley’s career without dragging up his earlier failings. A generation on from the Troubles, we can only regret that both sides did not lay down their weapons sooner. Northern Ireland today is by no means a politically united country, but it is a stable and relatively peaceful one. And for that, we have Paisley’s legacy to be thankful for.