Protestant firebrand-turned-peacemaker Ian Paisley to quit British Parliament after 40 years

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

NIreland’s Paisley to quit Parliament after 40 yrs

DUBLIN — Ian Paisley, the hard-line Northern Ireland evangelist who led Protestants into power-sharing with Catholics, announced Tuesday he will retire from the British Parliament after a 40-year career.

The 83-year-old Paisley spent decades opposing compromise with minority Catholics, particularly the Irish Republican Army supporters of Sinn Fein. He did a stunning U-turn in 2007 by forging a Northern Ireland administration alongside Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness.

But within a year of that breathtaking moment, Paisley suffered a rapid political decline amid grumblings from his Protestant grass roots that he had gone too far — and seemed, in particular, to be enjoying working with McGuinness too much.

Paisley first was forced to step down as leader of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, the anti-Catholic church he founded in 1951. Then he retired as leader of the Democratic Unionists, an antiestablishment party he founded in 1971 and built into Northern Ireland’s dominant party today. Finally he stepped aside as first minister of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing coalition in favor of his Democratic Unionist successor, Peter Robinson.

Paisley confirmed Tuesday he will vacate his final political post, as the parliamentary member for rural North Antrim, following the British general election expected in May.

He has held the seat without serious challenge since 1970 — but his departure could set the scene for the next challenge to Northern Ireland’s peace process.

Paisley’s son, Ian Jr., is favored to defend the seat for the Democratic Unionists. But a breakaway faction that opposes Paisley’s shocking embrace of Sinn Fein, calling itself Traditional Unionist Voice, intends to run its leader Jim Allister as an underdog candidate.

Analysts agree that an Allister victory would destabilize Protestant support for power-sharing, the central accomplishment of Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord.

In 2004, Allister succeeded the elder Paisley as the Democratic Unionists’ representative in the European Parliament. Allister resigned from the Democratic Unionists in 2007 to protest Paisley’s surprise decision to form a Cabinet alongside Sinn Fein.

Paisley said he was saddened by Allister’s defection and opposition, but defended his agreement with Sinn Fein as “the best possible deal in the circumstances.”

“After a period of tough negotiations it was my view that, provided our conditions were met, the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland wanted me to do the deal. It was as simple as that,” Paisley said.

Tributes poured in to Paisley from across the political divide, led by Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward.

“He is a remarkable figure whose politics are born from the deepest principles and most fervently held conviction and who not only contributed to debate but often dominated it,” Woodward said. “His decision to share government with Sinn Fein and to work as first minister with Martin McGuinness sent a beacon of optimism around the world.”

Allister, who seeks to emulate Paisley’s longtime policy of toppling any Protestant leaders who dared compromise, said many Protestants considered Paisley a hypocrite and a traitor to the cause of defending Northern Ireland’s political union with Britain.

“For one who once championed traditional unionism — with such colorful pledges as Sinn Fein only getting into government over his dead body — sadly his abiding legacy will be of bequeathing Ulster a terrorist-inclusive government,” Allister said.

On the Net:

Paisley’s Democratic Unionist profile,

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