Belfast Telegraph

Dr Paisley deserved credit too

By John D Brewer

The remarks of Sir James Galway on The Nolan Show about the Rev Ian Paisley exemplify a feature of the life of all politicians who have helped oversee a process of conflict transformation. It is the question of historical perspective.

If truth is the first casualty of war, perspective is a casualty of peace. There are two aspects to this loss of perspective that are particularly acute in Northern Ireland.

First, we lose sight of just how far we have come. By focusing on the remaining difficulties, we forget just what has been achieved. Secondly, we focus too much on the past and give too little attention to the future. Galway's execrating denunciation of Paisley might be fair enough if we focused only on the past and neglected what Paisley's eventual contribution to the future was.

But what he says of Paisley could be said of every politician who comes out of a process of conflict transformation committed to building a better future.

Three things stand out about Paisley's career once we try to balance the past with the future. First, he was so associated with the unreconstructed unionist position that he justified the sobriquet "Dr No".

The quip that the Good Friday Agreement was "Sunningdale for slow learners" was deserved and Galway is right to ask how many people died in the interim who might otherwise have been spared if Paisley had not been so opposed.

Secondly, his stubbornness in holding out on a deal did win significant concessions from Sinn Fein, or, at least, brought Sinn Fein's commitment to them forward, such as decommissioning and support for the police.

Thirdly, precisely because he was such a tenacious Dr No, he was able to take a greater number of people who shared his views with him when he became Dr Yes.

We can quite rightly focus on what made him Dr No if we were interested only in the past. However, we might also acknowledge the personal courage it took to shift to become Dr Yes.

And we might also admit that his conversion, while regretfully slow, was critical to the better future that we hope a younger generation, without our memories of the past, can inherit.

  • Professor John D Brewer is professor of post-conflict studies at Queen's University, Belfast

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