How Northern Ireland’s Mr NO became Mr YES

Mirror

My friend Ian Paisley was like chalk and cheese from the militant, divisive figure I and millions of others had only too vividly recalled from the past.

Until 2005-7, when I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he had always thundered ‘NO’ to any agreement with Northern Irish Nationalists.

As for Republicans – especially Sinn Fein and its paramilitary wing the IRA – they were the devil incarnate.

He roused his followers – sometimes into a frenzy.

Attacks on civil rights marches in 1968-9, and violence around Orange Order Parades striding into sensitive Catholic areas often followed.

Yet forty years later in private I discovered a warm, hospitable, courteous, venerable gentleman with old fashioned manners, utterly devoted to his large family, and an infectious humour.

We made an odd couple: he deeply religious, I agnostic. He a right wing fundamentalist, I a socialist. He fiercely anti-Catholic, I committed to equal rights for all.

Yet we got on famously. And in our private chats it soon became apparent that he might well do something nobody ever thought possible and agree to a peace with his most bitter enemies Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

Provided they signed up to support policing, justice and the rule of law in a way they had always refused in the past. The IRA having renounced its war in July 2005, finally they did do so in February 2007.

By then he saw himself as a man of destiny, in every sense the ‘Big Man’ of Northern Ireland politics.

“I feel I have to do this,” he told me. “It’s my duty, and I know God is willing me on.”

Many of his followers, whom he had long led in an uncompromising stance, remained very suspicious, some openly hostile.

A few of his senior MPs tried to prevent us meeting alone together. They wanted to hold him back.

But, by then at least, he had become a real leader.

He understood only too well that a window of opportunity had opened and that, if he didn’t seize the moment, it might close, never to open again. Mr NO had become Mr YES.

There wasn’t any other Protestant leader who could have done that. Some had tried and failed – defeated often by Paisley himself.

His legacy will be the indispensable figure to deliver Northern Ireland from horror and evil, to a new era of peace and stability – and we should all salute him for that.

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