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Irish Protestant leader remembered for fiery sermons, political rhetoric

Ian Paisley laughs as he poses for a photo with school children in 1999. Associated Press/Photo by Paul Faith/PA

Irish Protestant leader remembered for fiery sermons, political rhetoric

Ian Paisley, one of Northern Ireland’s most fiery political and religious figureheads, died Friday at age 88.

Through his church and his half century of political activism, Paisley became the face of one of the most conservative Protestant factions in the bloody conflict with Roman Catholics over Northern Ireland’s sovereignty.

“Although ours is the grand hope of reunion, naturally as a family we are heartbroken,” his wife, Eileen, said in a statement.

Paisley was born on April 6, 1926. The son of a Baptist pastor, he founded the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster in 1951 and the parish Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church in Belfast in 1969. The socially and politically conservative denomination he led until 2008 continues to reflect the historical setting of its inception, shunning anything that resembles Roman Catholicism.

Throughout the 20th century, the south’s Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its political arm, Sinn Fein, fought Protestant factions in the north tooth and nail. Bombings, torture, and other terrorist acts killed more than 3,700 people from the 1960s through the 1990s, a time referred to in Ireland as “the troubles.”

For Paisley, the Roman Catholic Church was the “whore of Babylon” and Pope John Paul II the “Antichrist.” His fiery words echoed through Britain’s House of Commons for four decades, and his speeches could start a protest, a mob, a riot, or any combination of the three. The IRA’s violence was perhaps the most recognizable in the conflict, but a myriad of Protestant militias carried out their own atrocities and were sometimes linked to Paisley.

But throughout his political and religious careers—the two inextricably intertwined—his relationship with the Irish public stymied observers, who saw a man hated but somehow simultaneously respected. In his personal interactions, his dry and outright obnoxious humor was somehow infectious.

Paisley’s legacy and the newly recalled lessons of history are especially poignant as Scotland appears poised to break away from the United Kingdom and European voices try to mitigate the nationalist violence shredding Ukraine.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Paisley continued to lead protests in what he called a battle between good and evil. Northern Ireland pinballed between British and Irish sovereignty as compromise after compromise fell through when the IRA refused to disarm. But when the IRA renounced violence in 2005, Paisley became an unlikely leader in compromise and peace.

Paisley and Catholic leader Gerry Adams, often fierce enemies, surprised many by agreeing to a power-sharing provincial government in 2007. “After a long and difficult time in our province, I believe that enormous opportunities lie ahead,” Paisley said.

Paisley and Adams were Northern Ireland’s co-leaders until Paisley began his retirement. He stepped down from the Democratic Unionists in 2008, retired from the British House of Commons in 2010, and received the title Lord Bannside. He ended his political career last year in Britain’s House of Lords.

Ironically, the virulent anti-Catholic rhetoric he led his denomination with for so long backfired on him. His willingness to share power with those many Irish Protestants still resent as murderers infuriated congregants in the Free Presbyterian Church. Divisions and schisms forced him to step down as head of the denomination in 2008 and ultimately leave his own Belfast congregation in 2012.

“It was like a knife going through you,” his son Kyle said in 2008. “The family just felt as if we’d all been stabbed.” Paisley said early this year no member of the family had set foot in Martyrs Memorial since he left.

Paisley became known in his later sermons for speaking about death with hope and anticipation. “If you hear in the press that Ian Paisley is dead, don’t believe a word of it,” he once said, in words perhaps comforting or unsettling, depending on which Irishman you ask. “I’ll be more alive than ever. … I’ll be singing as I sang never before.”

Paisley is survived by his wife, five children, and several grandchildren. But he also leaves behind an amicable Irish government and newly forged relationships with once-hated enemies, including IRA leader Martin McGuinness, who he once called a “terrorist and man of blood.”

“Once political opponents—I have lost a friend,” McGuinness said Friday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Andrew Branch Andrew is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.


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