Rev. Ian Paisley died in Norther Ireland on Sept. 12. Wikimedia Commons

Burying hatred

  • September 18, 2014

One of the 20th century’s most vocal Church antagonists is dead. The Rev. Ian Paisley died peacefully in Northern Ireland on Sept. 12, ending a life that for most of its 88 years was spent stoking division and inciting violence between Protestants and Catholics in his troubled homeland. 

To his credit, in his old age Paisley underwent a conversion and got past the sectarian hatred that fuelled much of his public life. He had heaped scorn on the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement but in 2006, when even the 6-foot-4 Paisley could no longer swim against a tide for peace, he sat down with Catholic nationalists — after vowing for years he’d never do so — and joined a coalition government. By then the guns had pretty much fallen silent, but Paisley’s rapprochement was viewed as the final chapter on four decades of shootings and bombings that left 3,700 dead. 

It was an historic occasion and a great day for Northern Ireland, but it should have come much sooner. And it would have, too, if not for relentless verbal poundings from men like Ian Paisley. He wasn’t the only one — the IRA and its sympathizers certainly had their share — but Paisley was Northern Ireland’s loudest and most consistent provocateur for some 60 years. His booming anti- Catholic, anti-Irish tirades, often from the pulpit, emboldened the hardened men who carried the guns. 

The Catholic Church was a constant target of his vitriol. He once called Pope John Paul II the antichrist. He referred to the Church as the “whore of Babylon” and Catholicism as “popery.” During a televised address at Oxford, he pulled out a communion wafer and mocked Catholic beliefs. In the 1960s, he manned blockades alongside club-wielding bigots and like-minded police as Catholic civil rights marchers went to the streets peacefully to decry discrimination. They wanted jobs and housing. Paisley wanted them put down. He referred to the IRA as the “armed wing of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland” and thundered that the Vatican was in cahoots with Irish Catholics to crush Protestantism. 

Paisley was a powerful orator who played to the fears and emotions of the Protestant majority. He may not have pulled the trigger, but his fiery invective was stockpiled like gunpowder for the hitmen’s ammunition. A man of such commanding verbal ability could have hastened peace. Instead he prolonged war. 

His death reminds us of the destructive power of hatred and anger. But also of the healing strength of forgiveness and reconciliation. In the end, Paisley realized that, by encouraging respect and dialogue, Catholics and Protestants could live in peace. “We want to see that principle triumph,” he said near the end. 

So he leaves behind a nation finally at peace. May he rest likewise. 

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