Crossing the Line, by John Ostrander
I’ve been in this comics business for umpty-bum years now. Its not that I’m ashamed of the number; I just keep forgetting it. Ah, the joys of aging! It’s more than a quarter century since I started as a full-time writer; I know that. I’ve been a comic fan even longer. I’ve watched the occasional villain become… well, if not a hero, then something like one. Magneto, over in X-Men Land, for example. He’s gone from being the arch-enemy to our merry mutants to metamorphosing into an ally, to sometimes becoming their leader, and then back. Batman periodically gets darker until it’s hard to tell him apart from his foes.
Occasionally, this happens in real life.
Today, June 5, 2008, Ian Paisley steps down as First Minister of Northern Ireland.
Brief background, in case you don’t know: Northern Ireland is not a part of the Republic Of Ireland. It’s a constituent county of the United Kingdom and comprises the six counties that chose to remain a part of the U.K. when the Government of Ireland Act in 1920 created Home Rule in Ireland, formerly directly ruled by England. The Republic of Ireland, the South, with its capital of Dublin is (nominally, at least) largely Roman Catholic. Northern Ireland is largely Protestant but with a large Roman Catholic minority. In general, the Protestants regard themselves as English (they’re considered “Unionists”) while the Roman Catholics consider themselves Irish although, in fact, a citizen of Northern Ireland born before 2004 could claim citizenship in either or both the U.K. and Ireland.
A sad fact of the humanity is that the minority generally gets pissed on unless there are laws that are passed and enforced to the contrary. The rule of the majority is often the tyranny of the majority. Americans don’t have to look outside our own country to see how many different ways that is true. Race, color, gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation and so on – you show us a minority and we’ll find a way to abridge or deny them their rights. Just look at how many people in the Democratic primaries have said up front that they won’t vote for Barack Obama because he’s a black man.
There are always villains ready to lead the charge against the rights of others. They may wear hoods, they may wear swastikas, they may wear clerical collars or the title “Reverend,” but they’re all villains. One of Northern Ireland’s leading villains has been the Reverend Ian Paisley.
Background on the Rev. Dr. Paisley: he created his own church, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, in the early 1950s and served as its leader until January of this year. He is virulently anti-Catholic and anti-homosexual. When Pope John Paul II addressed the European Parliament in 1988, Paisley leapt up and verbally denounced the Pope as the Anti-Christ before getting hustled out. He regards alcohol as “the devil’s buttermilk.”
These are all largely quirks. It’s in the political arena that Paisley is really infamous. He has consistently and bellicosely fought against any accommodation with the Catholic minority, against any question of sharing power. His was the Great “No!” – the stentorian voice that would never agree to compromise, ever, and that could and did incite to riot and to violence. Effort upon effort to broker some sort of power-sharing between the majority and the minority would end in failure, broken on the hard rocks of his eternal “No!” He systematically denied or tried to deny others basic rights because they were not of his religion, his ethnic background, or read the Bible his way. I’ve regarded him as a fanatic, a bully, and a bigot.
In short, a villain.
He’s also, for twenty-seven years, been the representative of his district in the House of Commons in Parliament. He got re-elected time and again by his constituents. Of course, Strom Thurmond, noted racist, was returned time and again to the U.S. Senate by the good voters of South Carolina. Closer to home, for me, is Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago. This is the man who used the creation of the Dan Ryan expressway to effectively wall-off portions of the black south side from the white south side. He died in his 21st year as mayor.
One person’s villain is another’s man’s hero. Had America lost the Revolutionary War, we would regard George Washington the way we regard Benedict Arnold instead of as the Father of our Country and the reason we have sales every February on cars and sofas. Ian Paisley has been the head of the Democratic Union Party (DUP), the largest Unionist party in Northern Ireland and the dominant political party since 2005. Where I see a villain, they must see something else.
I was in Northern Ireland just two years or so ago. I have a wonderful friend there. I toured through Belfast that was a sometimes jarring mixture of Victorian age buildings and very new ones. My friend, Jim, explained that the new ones were replacements for stores and buildings blown out in “The Troubles” – the days of sectarian strife, especially in the Eighties and Nineties, where the IRA and the Protestant paramilitary groups took to bombs and guns, killing one another and plenty of innocents, in a struggle over who would control Northern Ireland.
I asked Jim and his sons and his wife if they thought there would be a lasting peace in Northern Ireland in their lifetimes. Despite the progress that had been made, none of them did. The young people, especially the men, would get virtually drafted into the different unionist and/or paramilitary groups and indoctrinated. The largest unionist party was the DUP and its leader was Ian Paisley. It created a cycle that left little room for hope.
Ten years ago this April, United States Senator George J. Mitchell, at the behest of the Clinton White House, brokered the “Good Friday Accords” – a deal between the governments of the U.K. and Ireland and of the major political parties in Northern Ireland, to create a Northern Ireland Assembly and power-sharing Executive that would recognize the rights of all. (I’m way oversimplifying and I know it but I believe that’s the gist.) Because Sinn Fein, linked to the provisional IRA, was included, Paisley and his DUP refused to play along. Despite their opposition, the referendum on the accord was passed by 70% of the Northern Ireland voters.
Perhaps at this point Paisley finally understood that his constituency was starting to move away from him. A canny leader knows it’s easiest to lead when you’re going in the same direction as your electorate. If they go off in another direction and you don’t go with them, you run the risk of becoming irrelevant. The one group Paisley could not shout “NO!” at was his own followers. He began to work – effectively – with the new government.
Within four years, the government failed. Issues were still deep between Sinn Fein and the unionists. Paisley and his DUP became the majority party but compromise could not be reached and a new government formed. It seemed likely the whole thing would fall apart and direct rule from London would be re-imposed. And what would follow from that? A return to the violence? For the new government to work, Paisley would have to accept power-sharing with Sinn Fein, which he had vowed as recently as July, 2006, that he would never do. He seemed as unyielding, as unreasonable, as defiant as ever.
Still, for me, the villain.
At the last moment, Paisley did sit down with Sinn Fein, did enter a government with them, did agree to power sharing. On May 8th of last year, at the center of government, Stormont, he was elected First Minister and Martin McGuiness of Sinn Fein was named the deputy First Minister. Paisley said, "Today at long last we are starting upon the road — I emphasize starting — which I believe will take us to lasting peace in our province."
Does that make him a hero now? I don’t know. How much sooner could Northern Ireland have wound up in the same place, how much blood would not have been shed and how many lives spared, had Paisley come to this compromise sooner? On the other hand, make no mistake about it, they’re at this point now only because Paisley did find a way to “yes.” Perhaps it was concern that his historical legacy would only be negative, maybe it was that fear of becoming irrelevant, but he found a way to agree where in the past he had always disagreed.
Shakespeare wrote that one man, in his time, plays many parts. Dickens had David Copperfield say whether or not he was the hero of his own story, the pages of the book must tell. I’m the lead character in my own life, but a support character in another, a minor character in a third, or perhaps comic relief – and in some I may well be a villain. They are all true but none of them are all true.
Maybe having Magneto cross back and forth from bad guy to good guy isn’t simply arbitrary. As much as he would be offended to hear it, maybe it just means he’s human. Just like all the rest of us.
Including Ian Paisley.