It’s a funny old thing, identity. Who are you? Are you the primary school child who got bullied or had a toilet problem? Maybe you’re the young stud or sexy thing who turned heads? Or the middle-aged pontificator, or the ageing reactionary, or the bewildered figure in the old people’s home? They could all be you and yet each is sharply different.
It’s an issue that intrigues me and it flared up again when I heard yesterday that Ian Paisley had been rushed to hospital and is in intensive care. Most of us have grown used to the later Paisley: the hunched, hesitant figure, eyes closed, groping for words. But it’s wrong as well as inaccurate to present a person’s life in that selective way. Ian Paisley was also the man who led the charge, a bull in clergy clothing, against the civil rights movement; he was the man who ended the career of UUP leader after UUP leader for being too soft, and promised he would smash Sinn Féin; he was the man who said "Never, never, never, never!" and kept the pot stirred here for decades. He was seen by many Catholics as the epitome of bigotry.
And yet all those former identities fall away, as I hear news of a sick old man in a hospital bed, his family fearful and maybe tearful, all that former strength utterly shorn from the north’s Samson. He’s not a man for whom it’s easy to feel sympathy, and no doubt he’d reject it if he could, but this morning, I feel sorry for Ian Paisley’s family and – to my mild astonishment - for Ian Paisley himself.