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Editorial

Ian Paisley and politics of peace

The Northern Ireland firebrand eventually mellowed enough to join a government with once-hated rivals.

March 24, 2010

Northern Ireland's Protestant war horse, the 83-year-old Rev. Ian Paisley, has announced he is ready to relinquish the County Antrim seat he has held in Britain's House of Commons for 40 years and which he used as a platform to defend the cause of militant Unionism. For many in the province, Paisley is still "Dr. No," the rabidly anti-Catholic minister who incited sectarian hatred and obstructed peacemaking for decades. "Never, never, never," he famously said in response to a 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement that laid the groundwork for self-determination and a devolved provincial government.

Near the end of his career, however, Paisley gave meaning to the phrase "never say never" by joining a power-sharing government with the enemy, former Irish Republican Army leader Martin McGuinness, bringing an official close to the bloodshed known simply as "the Troubles."

A founder of the Free Presbyterian Church of Northern Ireland, Paisley railed against smoking, drinking and homosexuality, and reviled the Roman Catholic Church. He was elected to the European Parliament in the 1970s, and when Pope John Paul II delivered a speech there in 1988, Paisley shouted, "I denounce you as the antichrist!" His tolerance was no greater for those who tried to wrest Northern Ireland out of British hands by force.

Paisley founded the Democratic Unionist Party. Although he is not known to have taken part in vigilantism, Protestant militia groups had his moral support, while politicians who sought accommodation with Catholic nationalists earned his wrath. After British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish agreement, Paisley preached that God should "take vengeance upon this wicked, treacherous, lying woman." He also opposed a 1972 power-sharing agreement and the 1998 Good Friday agreement crafted by U.S. envoy George Mitchell.

In the end, though, he joined the Northern Ireland parliament that it created and eventually formed the government with McGuinness in 2007. There was no epiphany for the lifelong opponent of change. He embraced it gradually and later said he had no regrets. "The overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland wanted me to do the deal. It was as simple as that."

Would peace have come more quickly without Ian Paisley? It's doubtful. He gave voice to radicals and bigots who feared losing their advantages, but then, skilled politician that he was, helped bring them along with him into the peace process. Those seeking to end conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan might do well to heed the lesson of Paisley and his Catholic counterparts: Peace cannot be made without the engagement of extremists waging the war.

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