Dr Ian Paisley 1926-2014
Some people seem to be born with superhuman powers, and I would say that Ian Paisley was one of them. Such people have massive amounts of energy, focus and determination. They often become leaders of men, inspiring great loyalty from their followers. They can persuade, encourage and inspire.
With his passing, we are seeing an interesting view of Ian Paisley, one that would not have been seen had he died anytime before the early 2000s. Before this time he was still very much Ulster’s ‘Dr No’ – a man determined to oppose any sign of compromise towards what he regarded as a dangerous enemy: Irish Republicanism.
Ian Paisley was a minister of religion and a politician, and was undoubtedly a figurehead for Northern Ireland, despite his controversial image. He was elected to the European Parliament several times in a row, a feat that would have been unlikely without the broad support of both communities in the province and the quirks of the PR system of voting.
Often outrageously controversial, he was a force of nature and something of an enigma. Many who spent time with him would speak of his personal warmth and charm. However, put him in front of a loyal crowd and the media spotlight, and he appeared to change into a monster, determined to smash his opponents. Indeed, this was the Ian Paisley of my youth, televised across the 1980s and denounced – in my household at least – as a ‘nutter’! To many in England, the conflict in Northern Ireland was a throwback to another era, and the province itself was a backwater, barely related to the rest of the UK and bringing nothing good: just bombs and mayhem to the mainland. While we disliked the IRA intensely (because a lot of people were dying at their hands) we were also at a loss to explain the passions that drove the loyal Orangemen.
I am not here to defend everything Ian Paisley did in the political arena. I don’t know all that went on, but I think I’ve heard the worst of it. You might have heard more than me, I don’t know. Either way, it is a shame that this Protestant clergyman – an evangelical no less – should have been associated with a lot of powerful rhetoric which (it is claimed by his detractors) led some people to violent acts or attitudes towards Catholics/Nationalists. The Bible is clear about ‘letting our gentleness be evident to all’ and ‘avoiding the appearance of evil’. Clearly, Ian Paisley crossed the line sometimes.
In fact, it must be said, I cannot defend all he did in the Christian sphere either. Through his Free Presbyterian denomination, Ian Paisley distanced himself from many churches that would have agreed with him on the essential foundations of the Gospel, and much more besides. Those most in the firing line were those who embarked upon ecumenical ventures (especially with the Roman Catholic Church), although Christians who drank alcohol, danced or who wore certain clothing could be under close srutiny, and criticism, also.
And yet…and yet…there was more to him than this. I met Ian Paisley once or twice, and even received a brief email from him. I was struck by his personal warmth and charm, as many others have been – and not just his fans. Even critical accounts of his life (e.g. Ed Moloney’s 1986 biography ‘Paisley’) cannot portray a monster on every page. In fact Moloney paints a fascinating picture of Paisley, the politician-pastor, equipped only with a Bible and his trademark overcoat, striding around the staunchly Catholic Rathlin Island on the North Antrim coast. There he went, meeting his constituents – mostly fishermen – and listening to their woes, never taking paper notes, only mental ones, and taking their concerns back to Westminster.
I’ve never forgotten this image. It is inspiring. This is spirituality, Christian duty and political nous at its very best. It is unpretentious and sincere. Those political duties would have been more than enough to keep us busy, but Paisley also pastored a church, delivered sermons and had a full diary of speaking engagements too. Energy like that is God-given, but do we, as modern Christians, ever ask for the power to be able to serve God so mightily?
Whatever men say (and Ian Paisley, for all his faults, knew that he was never going to be loved by all for his uncompromising stance) there was something he was consistently right about: the only opinion that matters is that of Jesus Christ. What do we make of Him? Do we love Him? Do we love others enough to preach Christ to them? Has He forgiven our sins and given us eternal life?
On these Christian essentials Ian Paisley never wavered. I will always care a lot more about my public image than Ian Paisley did about his, but nonetheless, there is something inspiring about Christians who speak up for Jesus, irrespective of the cost and their repuation.
How should today’s Christians regard Ian Paisley’s legacy? We should not to dismiss him as an embarrassing dinosaur, nor emulate everything he did (and he admitted to many past faults as he grew older), but to be a single-minded lover of Christ who will not buckle under the pressure to deny him or compromise His standards.
Even more important, as the rain-soaked Paisley trooping around Rathlin island demonstrated, showing a real care and concern for your fellow man (even your ‘enemies’) leaves a real impression of Christ on them. It is said many of them voted for him, in spite of the criticism it would have engendered in the community, if discovered. Words AND deeds.
Certainly, Ian Paisley had the words (and not always the kindest ones) but he had the deeds as well.
Learn from Ian Paisley; don’t emulate his mistakes, but emulate his sheer hard work for the Gospel, and his unwavering love for Christ. He was not ashamed of Jesus.