Stephen Pound was among those at the memorial service for the firebrand First Minister
The transition of the Reverend Dr Ian Paisley from firebrand demagogue to warm-hearted inclusive statesman has been well documented but it is one that many of us are still struggling to come to terms with.
The vitriolic language and sheer negativism that were his trademarks during the decades that led to the Good Friday Agreement still take some getting over, and the numerous stories of his personal kindness and the service he gave to constituents from both communities in North Antrim do not entirely shade away the memory of he who chose to bellow at the Pope and ramp up the divisions that held us back in the north of Ireland for far too long.
Paisley is no longer with us and maybe it is time for a little generosity of spirit and a concentration on his role as the power-sharing First Minister who may have characterised his relationship with Martin McGuinness as a lamb lying down with a lion but which the rest of the world marvelled at and accepted that the relationship between First and Deputy First Minister was not only quite extraordinary but was an essential component of the architecture of the power sharing executive at Stormont. With charitable thought in mind, I headed off to the remembrance service held at the Ulster Hall on October 19.
The order of service proclaimed that Lord Bannside had been “born on the 6th April 1926, born again on the 29th May 1932 and called home on the 12th September 2014”.
Naomi Long, Alliance East Belfast MP and the woman who beat Peter Robinson at the 2010 Westminster general election, was there with Alisdair McDonnell (SDLP South Belfast) and the Rev Dr Willie McCrea MP – presumable in his capacity as a Free Presbyterian minister – as was Jim Shannon, DUP Strangford.
I was seated in a row that extended from Chief Constable George Hamilton and the Speaker of the House
of Commons, John Bercow, to the Lord Lieutenant of Belfast, Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle, and included Paul Murphy, former Labour Secretary of State in Northern Ireland, and Sylvia Hermon the (very) independent MP for North Down. However, I was actually seated between former Taoiseach Bertie Aherne and Alex Salmond. Bertie seized Alex in a warm handshake with elicited a gasp of pain from Scotland’s recently bruised Braveheart and he pointed to the bandaging that wrapped his right hand. He told Bertie that he had suffered from the extensive handshaking during the referendum campaign to which the former Taoiseach gently suggested that he might have needed to have shaken a few more in light of the result.
This was very much a family occasion and Dr Paisley’s two sons, Ian K. Paisley MP and the Rev JC Kyle
Paisley spoke amid the ministers but Eileen, Baroness Paisley, was the star of the afternoon with a passionate and loving tribute that overcame the limitations of a trembling voice and deep emotional sadness.
I won’t pretend that I wasn’t profoundly conflicted and as the piper played Amazing Grace, I kept hearing those harsh tones in my ear and remembering the booming voice declaiming like the Demosthenes of the
DUP that he didn’t say “No” as that was far too temporary – he said “Never!”
Yes, I do remember the gentler side. Former Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik, who was brought up in Armagh and educated in Belfast, once asked me to approach Dr Paisley on his behalf to ask if he would marry Lembit and Sian Lloyd. In the spirit of theological and political ecumenism I happily did so and cherish the memory of the meeting that I brokered in which Ian Paisley said that he would be happy to officiate, but if he bound Lembit and Sian together it would be with bonds that could not be broken and which would be tied very tightly indeed. Lembit transferred his affections and attention to one of the Cheeky Girls soon afterwards, but I saw no causal linkage.
Sadly, the peace process in the North is still fragile and the latest impasse is being addressed by the current cross-party talks. Hearing the increasingly impressive Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, talk about the commitment of Dublin to breaking the logjam and remembering how Ian Paisley bitterly opposed any such moves or participation from Dublin during the early days of the Good Friday Agreement reminded me of how far we had come.
The three strands of the Good Friday Agreement are as crucial today as they were when agreed and the delicate nature of the talks currently being undertaken both underlines the seriousness of the impasse and shows in stark relief the gap between the wishes of the population of the north of Ireland for a peaceful and inclusive future and the apparent inability of the political institutions to reflect this.
Ian Paisley was able to move on from a position of frozen defiance, and there are enough good politicians in Stormont to show that they can do the same.
That really would be a tribute to the late Dr Paisley.
Stephen Pound is Labour MP for Ealing North