Rev. Ian Paisley to resign in Northern Ireland

By  Michael Kelly and Cian Molloy, Catholic News Service
  • March 10, 2008

{mosimage}DUBLIN, Ireland - Although some Catholics still remember the Rev. Ian Paisley's diatribes against Catholics, other praised the progress of the Protestant minister who became the highest official in the Northern Ireland government.

Paisley, 81, founder of the Free Presbyterian Church, announced March 4 that he would resign from his post as first minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly and as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in May.

The man who once described Pope John Paul II as the Antichrist and Catholicism as "popery" actually offered congratulations to Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, Northern Ireland, on his recent elevation to the College of Cardinals.

After spending decades refusing to share power with Northern Ireland's Catholic leaders, Paisley finally relented in May 2007 and has led a mixed Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government since.

Some Catholic political leaders find it hard to forget the legacy of bitterness that Paisley's earlier diatribes against Catholics left in a region torn by more than 30 years of sectarian strife.

Seamus Mallon, a former deputy leader of the Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party, said: "Paisley has always had a desire for absolute power; he would never cut a peace deal with anyone until he was in charge.

"Rev. Paisley was, above all, a destructive figure; he sought to destroy everything that he was not in control of, whether that was his church, his party or the government," Mallon said.

As a member of the British Parliament in Westminster and the European Parliament, Paisley had an excellent record of representing the interests of his constituents, both Protestant and Catholic. But many said his fire-and-brimstone rhetoric at the national level — such as describing the Catholic Church as the "whore of Babylon" and the Irish Republic as a sanctuary for "communists and anarchists" — was an incitement to hatred that helped fuel sectarian attacks on Catholics.

Paisley first made his name as a renegade within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. His displeasure with this denomination led him in 1951 to form his own breakaway group, the Free Presbyterian Church, with branches in many countries, including the United States.

The Free Presbyterians styled themselves as a "true" Protestant church, standing up to the "lies and misinformation of popery and Romanism" in Ireland. Fiercely opposed to ecumenism, the church eventually forced Paisley out as head late last year because of his increasingly warm relations with Catholics.

He was always most comfortable when mixing politics and religion, and his desire to see his former enemies humiliated almost scuttled the peace process on more than one occasion. When the Good Friday peace deal was near in 1998, Paisley insisted that it was not enough for former terrorists to embrace peace; he said "they must repent, be humiliated and seek forgiveness." He described his followers, opposed to the agreement, as "the faithful remnant of Israel."

Passionist Father Aidan Troy of Belfast, Northern Ireland, who was threatened with death after he refused a demand by Loyalist paramilitaries to close his local Catholic school, said Paisley has to be admired for the distance he has gone.

"A lot of Catholics would be very unhappy about Rev. Paisley's history; in the past; he's said some terrible things about Catholics and the Catholic community. But I think there's an appreciation for how far he's come and how difficult it was for him to come so far and share power," Troy said.

Cynics say it was the opportunity for him to become first minister of Northern Ireland that most influenced his decision to join the new power-sharing National Assembly last year.

Over the last 12 months, he appeared in public regularly with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a former member of the Irish Republican Army, with the two earning the nickname "the chuckle brothers" because of the numerous pictures of them laughing together in the White House and elsewhere. His good relations with McGuinness caused increasing disquiet among Democratic Unionist Party supporters, many of whom remain opposed to power-sharing with Sinn Fein, a predominantly Catholic political party.

Following the resignation announcement, British and Irish political leaders saluted Paisley on his decision to share power with the predominantly Catholic nationalists, with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair saying, "The man famous for saying 'no' will go down in history for saying 'yes.' ”

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