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Ian Paisley and Holy Week: Repenting and being forgiven

2010 April 2
by Paul Vallely

Not much in that, a journalist said to me after the extended interview with the Reverend Ian Paisley which the Today programme ran on Saturday to mark the end of a 40-year-long political career. “In many respects he has lost nothing,” said the programme’s presenter, Justin Webb, as the old Ulsterman’s gravely voice faded from the airwaves.

But for anyone with the consciousness that Dr Paisley was speaking at the start of Holy Week the verdict was strikingly different. In a week when Christians commemorate progress through suffering to new life, here was a story which mirrored that great archetype in our contemporary political reality.

“There is such a thing as forgiveness,” Dr Paisley said to John Humphrys who had gone to the priest-politician’s home in East Belfast for the interview. The BBC’s arch confrontationalist was perplexed, so the old Presybterian offered some basic theology. “Forgiveness rests upon a rejection of your old ways. There’s no doubt about it that Sinn Fein have done that. I have to be honest, if people repent, and show their repentance by not going back to their old ways, I have to honour that.”

Mr Humphrys was not going to let him off the hook. These were the very people who had once tried to murder him.  Yes, said the old preacher, with a flourish of the old rhetoric, Sinn Fein had once had “guns in their hands and murder in their heart” but they are “entirely different now”. They had told their people to aid, and even enlist in, the security forces “and they have kept to what they promised”.

There was a curious dynamic to the exchange. Mr Humphrys seemed determined to remain in the past – harrying the politician about a phrase he had used 41 years before – where the octogenarian preferred to live in the present. “You wanted to see him in hell,” the interviewer said of the former-IRA leader Martin McGuinness. “I’d rather see him heaven, redeemed and saved by the grace of God,” replied his interviewee.

And there was repentance from the old-time revivalist too. “I expressed myself in a way that Ulstermen understood me. But we’re not in those days now,” said. “No-one could justify everything they have every done… I have many, many things I repent of. My repentance is measured by how I live now and the repentance of Mr McGuinness has to be judged by what he’s doing now.”

Yet, if Dr Paisley had not repeatedly said No to compromise earlier in his career, might the conflict not have ended earlier, with fewer deaths? Mr Humphry’s political sophistication deserted him here in his insatiable fixation for controversy. The lesson of history – from Richard Nixon with China, or Ronald Reagan with the Soviet Union – is that it takes a hard man, not a dove, to negotiate peace because the hard man is able to take his own people along with him.

Should he have said Yes earlier? “I don’t accept that,” Dr Paisley said. “Other people were trying to settle it in a way that was merely a political plaster on the wound. I believe you had to deal with the wound”.  It was only on that basis “that there could be any lasting peace”.

There are fine political judgements involved here. But the Holy Week journey through a time of trial to one of resurrection was evident in the sense of generosity and self-criticism displayed by the man whom journalists once liked to call Dr No but who ended up praying together with Martin McGuinness when the ex-IRAman’s mother was dying.

“I believe that God can change people,” he concluded. “He certainly changed me.”  There are none so deaf as those who will not hear.


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