I first laid eyes on Ian Paisley in 1988. More precisely, I laid ears on him. He was on the altar of Martyrs Memorial church, on the Ravenhill Road in East Belfast. I was sitting in the last row, close to the door, just in case.
In 10 minutes, Paisley used the word anti-Christ about 20 times. He was a fine speaker. A booming voice. An undeniable presence. He was also completely off the wall. It was like sitting in a Pentecostal church somewhere in the backwoods of Kentucky. The only thing missing was a snake.
His rhetoric was such that I started getting paranoid, convinced that the Free Presbyterians who surrounded me could tell just by looking at me that I was Catholic. As Paisley wrapped up his sermon, I slipped out the back, fearing that if I didn’t hightail it they were going to put me on a spit and cook me over a bonfire.
Paisley the politician was very much like Paisley the preacher. He was a fundamentalist. Compromise was, to him, treachery. He loved that word. Treachery. He liked it almost as much as anti-Christ.
And yet, now that he is dead, Paisley is being remembered as the most unlikely peacemaker. Someone who, at the end of the day, as they’re fond of saying in Northern Ireland, ended up compromising with his sworn enemies. He is a potent symbol for peacemaking, even in the most intractable of conflicts.
Still, I fear that in death, some of Paisley’s rougher edges will be smoothed out. They shouldn’t be. It makes his life story all the more remarkable.
Ian Paisley was, for most of his life, an enormously divisive figure. He got people killed. For much of his life, he spouted a virulent hatred that dehumanized so many people and led some young men to go out and kill.
In 1991, I met a guy named Billy Giles in the H-blocks of the prison in Maze, outside Belfast. As a teenager, Billy used to go to Paisley’s sidewalk speeches, which were essentially incitements against Catholics and nationalists. Billy told me it was Paisley’s fiery rhetoric that convinced him and many of his peers that they couldn’t sit on the sidelines while the IRA was running around, shooting and bombing people.
In 1982, Billy abducted a Catholic guy named Michael Fay, somebody he knew from work, and shot him in the head. Billy said what bothered him most about Paisley was that Paisley denounced loyalist paramilitaries even as he incited them.
“He hands us the gun,” Billy said, “then calls us scum.”
Billy got out of prison after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the peace deal that Ian Paisley did everything in his power to ruin. I’d see Billy every once in a while, and we were supposed to meet for coffee at a shop in West Belfast one day but he never showed up. I found out later that Billy had hanged himself the day before. He never got over killing Michael Fay, an innocent man.
Billy wrote a long suicide note.
“I was a victim, too,” he wrote. “Please let our next generation live normal lives. Tell them of our mistakes and admit to them our regrets.”
When, years later, Paisley emerged as a born-again peacemaker, I was skeptical, if not cynical. He had spent so many years as the angry ayatollah, inciting the mob, belittling moderates, trashing ecumenism. He had done so much to ruin the nonviolent civil rights movement in which Catholic nationalists, modeling themselves after the American civil rights movement, demanded equality. By helping to destroy that movement, Paisley drove hundreds of young people into the arms of the IRA. By helping to destroy a power-sharing executive in 1974, Paisley consigned two generations to mind-numbing violence.
In the 1990s, as Northern Ireland slouched toward peace, Paisley sounded wistful for a past of bitterness and polarization. He bayed at modernity. He howled at normality.
In the end, he was crazy like a fox. By allowing his political rivals in the Ulster Unionist Party to take the first tentative, furtive steps toward power-sharing with Irish republicans, Paisley was able to position his Democratic Unionist Party as the trusted protectors of the Protestant people who want to remain part of the United Kingdom. Paisley became the leader of a power-sharing government he had spent his entire political life sabotaging. It was brilliant politics. But I didn’t initially buy the Road to Damascus — or more precisely, the Road to the Falls Road — conversion story.
Eventually, I was disabused of this cynical notion by three very different people: Martin McGuinness, Monsignor Denis Faul, and a nice old lady named Vera McVeigh.
Not long before he died, I was on the phone with Denis, who was trying to get more attention in America to the plight of The Disappeared, people who were killed by the IRA and their bodies secretly buried. I had written some stories and Denis wanted more.
“I’ve been talking to Ian Paisley about this,” Denis said, and I almost dropped the phone.
“Yes,” Denis goes, “you know Ian, don’t you?”
The idea of Ian Paisley, who once shouted down Pope John Paul II and called him the anti-Christ, working with a Catholic priest to try to find the missing bodies of Catholics seemed a bit too pat. But when I suggested to Denis Faul that Paisley was doing this just to embarrass his Sinn Fein rivals, Denis was short with me.
“Ah, g’way,” he said. “Stop it. Ian is a good man. He means well.”
He means well? I remember looking at the phone and thinking, “Did I hear that right?”
Paisley met with Vera McVeigh, whose son Columba was only 17 when the IRA abducted him, shot him as an alleged informer, and buried him in a grave no one has ever found. I had interviewed Mrs. McVeigh years before, and when I stopped in to see her not long after her meeting with Paisley, I repeated my skepticism about Paisley’s motives.
Mrs. McVeigh was a sweet lady, but she didn’t like my tone. She said I should be ashamed of myself for saying such a thing. She said Paisley was very kind to her, that he had showed her more consideration than other politicians, including Catholic ones.
“He’s a lovely man, so he is,” she said.
Paisley and McGuinness, the one-time IRA leader, got on so well as first and deputy first ministers in the power-sharing executive at Stormont, that the press started referring to them as the Chuckle Brothers. The firebrand preacher and the former bomb tosser, suddenly BFFs. I didn’t buy it.
So when I met with McGuinness at a small GAA club in County Derry, not long after the Chuckle Brothers became a political tag team, I urged him to tell the real story. McGuinness is, among northern politicians, pretty straightforward. Many unionists respect him because he acknowledged his IRA past, and if there’s one thing Protestant Ulstermen don’t like, it’s somebody who tries to give them a song and dance.
“He’s genuine,” McGuinness said. “It’s not an act. It’s a real conversion.”
I offered to go off the record.
McGuinness shook his head.
“I’d say the same thing off the record,” he said. “Ian’s a very spiritual man.”
Now I’d heard everything.
McGuinness insisted he wasn’t completely surprised. He said that Paisley had eventually come to take the same advice that Nelson Mandela had once given McGuinness, to remember that you don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies.
When Martin McGuinness learned today that Ian Paisley had died, he said he had lost more than a colleague. He said he had lost a friend.
If Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley could be friends, there is no such thing as a lost cause, no such thing as impossible. There’s hope for everybody. Even anti-Christs.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com