Catholic News Service
DUBLIN — Irish Cardinal Sean Brady had paid tribute to a controversial Protestant firebrand-turned-peacemaker who once heckled St. John Paul II as the “antichrist.”
The Rev. Ian Paisley, 88, who served as first minister in the cross-community power-sharing government in Northern Ireland from 2007 to 2008, died Sept. 12 and was buried after a private family funeral Sept. 15.
Rev. Paisley initially resisted calls to share power with Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority.
He infamously denounced Catholics as “vermin” and was widely criticized when he claimed that Catholic churches that had been destroyed in sectarian arson attacks had, in fact, burned to the ground because they had been storing explosives for paramilitary use.
Cardinal Sean Brady, who met with the politician in 2006, told Ireland’s RTE radio that, without the Rev. Paisley, “peace would not have been delivered.”
Cardinal Brady emphasized that, over the years, Rev. Paisley had moved from a position where he opposed civil rights for Catholics to one where he was willing to enter a power-sharing government with representatives of the Catholic community, including Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.
“That is the point; he moved,” said Cardinal Brady, recently retired as archbishop of Armagh, Northern Ireland. “He was an important player in public life in Northern Ireland for 50 years, and without him peace would not have been delivered, that is my conviction.”
As well as being a political leader, Rev. Paisley founded his own denomination, the Free Presbyterian Church, in 1951. He was bitterly opposed to ecumenism and denounced fellow Protestants for entering dialogue with the Catholic Church. Recalling their 2006 meeting, Cardinal Brady said Rev. Paisley “made it quite clear that the meeting was not ecumenical — it was social and political affairs.”
Rev. Paisley led opposition to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to 30 years of sectarian conflict in the region. However, by 2003, his Democratic Unionist Party had become the largest political bloc in Northern Ireland, and he began making contact with the Irish and British governments in a bid to make a deal. This led to a 2006 accord, known as the St. Andrew’s Agreement, in which Rev. Paisley agreed to share power if Sinn Fein would give unequivocal support for policing and the judiciary.
While Rev. Paisley retired in 2008, the power-sharing government has continued uninterrupted under his successor, Peter Robinson.
Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor, based in Belfast, where the Northern Ireland legislature is based, praised Rev. Paisley for his “principled stand on marriage, family and sanctity of human life at all stages.”
“While his historic legacy in terms of his interaction with the Catholic community was at times controversial, his contribution to the search for peace and political stability in Northern Ireland was, in the end, crucial,” Bishop Treanor said.