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22 September 2014

Ian Paisley didn't mince his words, so neither will I

General view of a portrait of Rev Ian Paisley in the Great Hall at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast, in memory of former DUP leader and First Minister Rev Ian Paisley. Pic Kelvin Boyes

After Ian Paisley died I was asked to write and speak about him. I'm a political commentator. Writing and speaking about politics is what I do. And I don't tone down my opinions because someone has died.

Nor did Ian Paisley. "This Romish man of sin is now in Hell!" is what he said publicly about the death of the much-loved Pope John XXIII. That must have upset some grieving Catholics, but Big Ian thought it was his duty to tell the truth.

So do I. And the truth as I see it is that Ian Paisley's influence on the island of Ireland for almost all of his life was malign.

I expressed my opinions bluntly on BBC Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence and the Nolan Show. I know what I said on Sunday Sequence was distressing for a fellow guest, Mr Paisley's life-long friend the Reverend David McIlveen, who spoke of him with so much love.

On the Nolan Show, Edwin Poots said I'd hurt him by what I said and that it wasn't right to speak of him like that before his funeral.

To which I say: "Poppycock, Minister Poots. Man up."

The commentator Matthew Parris was rebuked by many of his London Times readers last March because he was frank immediately after Tony Benn's death about how wrong and dangerous were his views and how merciless and treacherous he was to colleagues.

Why didn't he wait until later, he was asked by many nice people.

To adopt that as a policy, he pointed out, would mean that when someone died, one couldn't point out his bad side until he had ceased to be of great public interest.

What was more, he explained: "To some degree a reputation is fixed (or, at least, the first draft of a reputation is issued) in the days and weeks after death. The period during which, metaphorically, the corpse has yet to go cold may be critical in striking the tone."

Listening to and reading the ludicrously exaggerated and in some instances hypocritical eulogies going the rounds about Mr Paisley made me determined not to pull any punches in my criticisms.

I attribute to my historian (half-English Methodist) father's obsession with objectivity my desire to get at even inconvenient truths. My propensity to being blunt I attribute to forming close friendships with, and learning from, Presbyterians.

The Irish Catholic culture in which I was brought up in Dublin was one that discouraged the challenging of received wisdom: telling the truth about the dead – if they were admired dead – was unthinkable.

The first biography I wrote was about Patrick Pearse, the most famous of the executed leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. Published 61 years after his death, it caused great offence to many nationalists because it contained information that some found upsetting.

In the 1980s I became involved in Anglo-Irish political conferences and came to know and like many Ulster Protestants because they said what they meant and damned the consequences.

When I became a political journalist in the early 1990s, I annoyed Sinn Fein by writing truthfully about the IRA. There were attempts to have me fired for being "unhelpful to the peace process", than which there was no greater sin.

I am still pleased that I said on Irish television to Martin McGuinness's face at a time when the IRA had broken its ceasefire that he should be interned. The Cork audience were horrified at what they thought were bad manners.

When Ian Paisley stepped down as First Minister I wrote a massively critical assessment of him for an English newspaper. He didn't threaten to sue, for, as readers' editor Paul Connolly said in this newspaper on Friday, he had "a big chin on which to take things".

His son Ian sent a solicitor's letter over a glancing reference to him, but then some members of the DUP, like Sinn Fein, use the restrictive libel laws to their financial advantage. So let me end by being positive about Mr Paisley.

He certainly dished it out in what I considered an appalling way. But no one could accuse him of not being prepared to take it.

Unlike Edwin Poots.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards