Ian Paisley spoke to the heart as well as the head... and inspired me
The death of Ian Paisley dominated the news in Northern Ireland over the weekend, with newspapers carrying extended coverage and supplements. As I thought about his passing my mind went back to my earliest memories of the man and his influence on me.
The earliest recollection is probably watching on television a debate at the Oxford Union in 1967 involving Ian Paisley and Norman St John Stevas. I remember, too, the occasion in 1968 when he opposed a People's Democracy march from Queen's University into the centre of Belfast. One of my friends at school had gone down to this and the next day it was the topic of conversation in the playground.
After the comparative stability of the 1950s and 1960s Ulster was entering a period of turmoil and uncertainty. In the midst of that turmoil, whether in matters of faith or politics, Paisley presented a clear message and that was appealing.
Those eventful times aroused my interest in politics and it was an interest which deepened and developed. After three years at university in England I returned to Queen's University and joined the DUP in the university. That was my first experience of party politics in Northern Ireland.
I was not a Free Presbyterian but from time to time I attended services in the Martyrs' Memorial Free Presbyterian Church. As I listened to Ian Paisley preach and as I read the books and the booklets he wrote my understanding of Christian truth and biblical theology were deepened.
His power and passion as a preacher were compelling and I can still remember the outlines of some of the sermons I heard all those years ago. They helped to strength my faith in Christ and through them I was introduced to authors and books that otherwise I might not have encountered.
Paisley was a great orator and a great communicator. He spoke to the heart as well as the head and he spoke in a way that his hearers could understand.
His death marks in some way the end of an era and his life spanned the entire period of the Troubles. Over the past week most people have been generous in their comments although sadly some critics have erroneously attempted to place much of the blame for the Troubles at his door. That view is superficial and wrong. It fails to appreciate both the complexity and the context of what happened in Ulster over several decades.
I was particularly disappointed to hear some of the comments of the former SDLP politician Austin Currie and former Alliance leader John Cushnahan. However, their views may have been coloured by their leaving Northern Ireland to take up new political careers in the Irish Republic.
The truth is that as a society we do not have a common understanding of the past. What happened in Ulster in the late 1960s was the perfect storm and we cannot understand it without understanding the range of factors that contributed to that perfect storm.
There was the role of the Connolly Association, the Communist Party and the IRA in creating the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association; there was the role of Dublin politicians in encouraging a separate Northern IRA command, which became the Provisional IRA; and these are but two of the factors that combined to create that perfect storm.
Finally, as I thought about the death of Ian Paisley I was reminded once again of the brevity of life and the certainty of death. He had a long life of 88 years, well beyond the three-score years and ten, but "it is appointed unto men once to die". Moreover I cannot think of him without thinking of his ministry and his message, a message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore in the words of the Psalmist, "Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom." (Psalm 90:12)
Nelson McCausland MLA is Minister for Social Development