AP/Peter Morrison

Former First Minister of Northern Ireland Ian Paisley, who died Friday at age 88, was buried at a private funeral in Belfast on Monday.

For a man who was for so long — too long — a thorn in the side of democracy in Northern Ireland, his death has seen him variously lauded as a “statesman,” “peacemaker” and all-around friend of politicians and powerful observers.

The slew of tributes from the likes of former President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister David Cameron present Paisley as an architect of the Northern Irish peace process, with former Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern gushing that his “bravery and political acumen helped us build Ireland’s peace.”

For many others (especially those of us who grew up in the north of Ireland), Paisley’s life story looks quite different. As Observer writer Sean O’Hagan notes, “Paisley’s unlikely late embrace of power-sharing in Northern Ireland which, lest we forget, assured him the post of first minister, thus finally assuaging his gargantuan ambition and ego, seems to have blinded most commentators to his long record of disruption, bigotry and rabble-rousing, not to mention his flirtations with paramilitarism.”

If Paisley must be remembered, it should be as the George Wallace of Northern Ireland. No one did more to instigate and then perpetuate the 30 years of war known — with Irish understatement — as the “Troubles.”

Paisley first emerged on the public scene as the raving antagonist of the nonviolent civil rights movement of 1969-71. His hellfire sermons and relentless assertion of Protestant supremacy splintered the old Unionist Party and made his pulpit one of the most powerful political forces in the north for more than a generation.

His unwavering view of the Catholic minority was a mirror image of white racism in the American South (not surprising considering his strong ties to fundamentalist Bob Jones University in South Carolina. “They [Catholics] breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin,” he said. Paisley openly incited violence and condoned the burning of working-class Catholic homes. He was implicated in the first sectarian murder of the 1960s and accused (in The Irish Times) of being involved in the cover-up of a major pedophile ring in the early 1970s. In 1977, he launched the infamous “Save Ulster from Sodomy” campaign to keep homosexuality, legal in the rest of the United Kingdom, outlawed in Northern Ireland.

Paisley was the very embodiment of the slogan “no surrender.” But surrender he did. In his later years, power sharing became the only legitimate option for the statelet whose Catholic population is now almost equal to its share of Protestants, and with the Unionist community swayed toward Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party due to the decline of more moderate parties such as David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party.

Paisley had vehemently opposed proposals for power sharing throughout his long tenure as the “Dr. No” of Northern Irish politics. As recently as 1997, he thundered, “I will never sit down with Gerry Adams. … He’d sit with anyone. He’d sit down with the devil. In fact, Adams does sit down with the devil.” Arguably, his reversal stemmed more from the opportunistic desire to become part of the new power structure than from any real desire for democracy.

This postmortem revisionism about Paisley evokes stories retold last year after the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was similarly despised in Northern Ireland.

It can be said that Paisley set the blaze and then unabashedly claimed credit for putting it out. Some may choose to commemorate Paisley the fireman, but for many of us he’ll always be remembered as the chief arsonist.

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.