Northern Ireland’s Protestant leader Paisley willing to meet Catholic archbishop – ISN

DERRY — In his first public interview since the Irish Republican Army (IRA) vowed to end its armed campaign in July, hardline Protestant unionist leader Ian Paisley on Sunday gave a positive assessment of the troubled region’s political future and said he would agree to meet the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Speaking to Irish state broadcaster RTE, Paisley said he believed peace in Ireland was possible in his lifetime.

Paisley – the leader of Northern Irelands largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – has long been an ardent opponent of Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland, and of the Catholic Church. He is now the leading political voice in pro-British unionism in Northern Ireland

Paisley, who opposes the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that ended the over 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland, went on to say he was willing to meet the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, Archbishop Sean Brady.

Paisley’s political opposition to Irish nationalism has been influenced heavily by his religious opposition to Catholicism.

Paisley, who founded and runs his own Free Presbyterian Church, has written and spoken of his views of Catholicism and the Vatican. Notoriously, he was expelled from Pope John Paul II’s address to the European Parliament in 1988 for heckling the late Pontiff.

A statement issued earlier by Archbishop Brady said he looked forward “to the prospect of engaging with ministers from all parties in the exercise of the civic, social, and educational responsibilities of the Catholic Church in a modern, pluralist democracy”, and “such engagement […] does not compromise the sincerely held religious convictions of anyone”.

Brady first signalled his interest in meeting with Paisley last May. In July, DUP lawmaker Gregory Campbell had sent a letter to his office requesting a meeting on “issues of mutual concern.”

In the interview with RTE, Paisley condemned the recent upsurge in anti-Catholic sectarian attacks on churches, schools, and businesses in the unionist stronghold of Ballymena/north Antrim.

In response, Phillip McGuigan, a member of Northern Ireland’s now-suspended devolved legislature representing Sinn Féin – the political party linked to the IRA – told ISN Security Watch on Monday that Paisley’s condemnation was “belated.”

“From the start, the DUP has done little to end the attacks,” McGuigan said, echoing local nationalists’ sentiments that Paisley could have spoke earlier about the actions of local loyalist groups.

Unlike Sinn Féin, the DUP is not directly connected to any paramilitary organization. But Paisley has a long history of stoking sectarian fires with his thunderous speeches. McGuigan said “no nationalist or republican in north Antrim thinks that he has no influence over these people.”

The DUP is now the largest political party in Northern Ireland, with nine seats in the UK Westminster parliament. It has capitalized on unionist-Protestant dissatisfaction with political developments since the 1998 peace agreement, overtaking the once-dominant Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) as the leading representative of unionism in Northern Ireland.

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