BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Throughout Northern Ireland’s dark decades of war, Ian Paisley was the loudest and most charismatic voice on the battlefield, rallying Protestants in the hundreds of thousands against compromise with Roman Catholics. “No surrender!” he cried.
On Tuesday, less than a year after stunning this British territory by making peace with his enemies, Paisley declared his lifetime’s work done. His words came whisper-soft at times, confident and content.
His decision to form a government alongside a former Irish Republican Army commander, he said, “was the right thing to do.”
The 81-year-old evangelist announced he would quit in May as leader of the fledgling Protestant-Catholic government and also would surrender the reins of the Democratic Unionist Party he founded 37 years ago.
Analysts, colleagues and opponents universally called it the end of an era.
Paisley said he picked his May departure because he will be able to preside over an international investment conference in Belfast featuring potential U.S. investors.
He also expects praise in April from a string of visiting dignitaries, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former President Clinton, when Northern Ireland commemorates the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday accord – a power-sharing plan that Paisley initially opposed.
Only a few years ago, the idea of Paisley cooperating with the leaders of the IRA-linked Sinn Fein – people he denounced as “bloodthirsty monsters” in alliance with the devil – seemed an impossibility.
But the anti-Catholic preacher responded decisively after winning a string of key concessions from his enemies: the IRA’s 2005 disarmament and renunciation of violence, and Sinn Fein’s 2007 vote to accept the authority of the Northern Ireland police.
Ever since Paisley began leading an administration alongside veteran IRA commander Martin McGuinness, observers had waited in vain for them to trade insults and split. Instead, the pair appeared joking together frequently in public and become widely known as the “chuckle brothers.”
The British and Irish governments – who long dismissed Paisley as a hate-monger and destructive bigot and froze him out of negotiations from 1998 to 2003 – praised him Tuesday as the one figure powerful enough among Protestants to make stable power-sharing with Sinn Fein work.
“Was there anyone else who could have carried it? I very much doubt that,” said Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who forged a warm public relationship with Paisley over the past year of growing all-Ireland cooperation.
“Ian Paisley’s contribution to peace, after all the years of division and difference, was decisive. … The man famous for saying ‘no’ will go down in history for saying ‘yes,’ ” said Blair, who together with Ahern oversaw Belfast negotiations that produced the Good Friday pact.