Sometimes it is the political leader least likely to be associated with change who breaks a political logjam. Thus it was a southern Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, who forced civil rights legislation through Congress and a lifelong anti-communist, Richard Nixon, who opened diplomatic relations with red China.
The Rev Ian Paisley, who died yesterday, was known as Northern Ireland’s Dr No, because of his relentless opposition to any political reform that might bring the province’s Catholic minority in from the cold. For a long time there was no living politician in the UK who was so well known as the fire-and-brimstone preacher from Ballymena. His virulent anti-Catholic rhetoric landed him a three-month prison sentence in 1966, causing violence in the streets, and making him a household name across the UK, a symbol of fundamentalist reaction.
He was the nemesis of the patrician unionist politicians who ruled Northern Ireland for half a century until the onset of the Troubles. He, more than anyone else, destroyed the attempts to introduce power-sharing in the 1970s. He was the founder of the “Save Ulster from Sodomy Campaign”, a preacher who thought The Sound of Music unfit for public viewing because it featured a Catholic nun.
He opposed both the Anglo-Irish Agreement, endorsed by Margaret Thatcher in 1985, and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Yet when at last peace came to the troubled province, his support proved pivotal. When Ian Paisley said it was time for compromise, there was no one in the Protestant community who could gainsay him. In his final years, the man long suspected of harbouring a bigoted loathing of Catholics worked harmoniously alongside former members of the IRA. The good that he did lives on after him; the evil is interred with his bones.