We are living in miraculous times. If someone had said 20 years ago that in April 2007 the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Rev Ian Paisley, and the Deputy First Minister, Mr Martin McGuinness, would be sending a joint telegram1 of congratulations to the Irish cricket team for their good performance in the World Cup, he would have been greeted with hysterical laughter and probably committed to the tender care of men in white coats!
But this, happily, is where we are. I was re-reading Ian Paisley’s speech2 in Dublin last month after he had met the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, for what seem to have been warm and cordial talks. His exact words should be read over and over again because they are so extraordinary and unprecedented.
He began by remarking: “Some say hedges make the best neighbours, but that is not the case. I don’t believe we should plant a hedge between our two countries.” He believed that “mutual respect” was “a key to cementing good and civilised relationships on this island that we share. I am proud to be an Ulsterman, but I am also proud of my Irish roots.” He noted that Ireland’s failure to remain within the Union during his father’s time had not destroyed those roots, “although I would put the Ulsterman before the Irishman in my constitution.”
He went on: “As the leader of the unionist people, and with Northern Ireland’s place in the Union secured, I believe it is important to engage with our closest neighbour from a position of mutual respect and with assured confidence. And I think we can do that today. We can confidently state that we are making progress to ensure that our two countries can develop and grow side-by-side in a spirit of generous co-operation. I trust that all barriers and threats will be removed day by day. Business opportunities are flourishing and genuine respect for the understanding of each other’s differences, and, for that matter, similarities is now developing….We discussed co-operation of an economic nature that will be to our mutual benefit, especially corporation taxes.”
He finished with these words: “Such a visit [the proposed joint visit by Dr Paisley and Mr Ahern to the Battle of the Boyne site] will help to demonstrate how far we have come when we can celebrate and learn from the past so that the next generation more clearly understands the future. We look forward to future meetings and trust that old suspicions and discords may be buried under the prospect of mutual and respectful co-operation. Thank you, Mr Prime Minister, for your hospitality today and your welcome to this great city of Dublin.”
These are the kind of words one would expect to hear in a speech from the chairman of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, not the firebrand anti-nationalist leader of the DUP! 21 years ago a leading Ulster Unionist told me that Ian Paisley “has the leadership ability to take Northern Ireland out of its crisis – he could save the province from absolute mayhem if he used his tremendous abilities for good” 2. That politician doubted whether this would ever happen. It is not at all clear what turned Dr Paisley from the king of the extreme Protestants of two decades ago into the champion of mutual respect and cross-border co-operation of today. It is just one more miracle that the Northern Ireland peace process has thrown in our way, one more mysterious transformation we should be profoundly grateful for.
1 See Paisley and McGuinness congratulate the Irish cricket team
2 See Ian Paisley shakes hands with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in public for the first time
3 E. Moloney and A. Pollak, Paisley. Dublin, 1986, p. 393