Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

In Ballymena - the stronghold of Paisleyism - the surprise reaction to Ian's revelations is one of indifference

Gauging opinion in Ballymena, Chris Kilpatrick finds a town loath to criticise its famous son

Slemish Mountain overlooks Ballymena town centre

Regarded as the heartland of Paisleyism, Ballymena was the springboard from which he took a minority of unionist dissenters and led them to what would become the largest political party in Northern Ireland.

Ian Paisley moved to Ballymena at the age of two and, as a young political firebrand, found much support for his staunch unionist outlook in the Co Antrim town.

His party policies made the headlines, but his constituency work also endeared Paisley to the people of Ballymena, of which he was awarded the freedom a decade ago.

Questions have been asked about the damage the revelations of the past fortnight will have on his political legacy.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the overwhelming feeling among those in the DUP stronghold yesterday was one of apathy.

There appeared to be no choosing of sides in his very public fallout with First Minister Peter Robinson and other leading figures in the party.

The affinity with the DUP post-Paisley remains strong.

His son, Ian jnr, succeeded him as MP for North Antrim and Ballymena Council is DUP-dominated with the party occupying half of the body's 24 seats.

Around half of those we spoke to at random on the streets of the town claimed to have no knowledge of the controversy, or didn't feel strongly enough about it to offer their thoughts.

And those close to the party were quick to play down suggestions of a rift between so-called Paisleyites and the current DUP leadership on the back of the explosive two-part documentary.

The J Kyle Paisley Memorial Free Presbyterian Church – named after Ian snr's father – is one of the denomination's largest in Northern Ireland.

A lifelong member of the church, and close friend of Paisley, told this newspaper he would be remembered by those in the church and the DUP for "decades of service, not two hour-long television programmes".

"His legacy shouldn't be defined by documentaries asking an 87-year-old man controversial questions about his past," he said.

"I think that's a general view."

Jim Flanagan, editor of the Ballymena Guardian, said he had spoken to many within the DUP in the wake of the furore.

He said he didn't believe the row would drive a wedge between party members in the area.

"The overriding sense is of sadness," he said. "Nobody can quite understand what the motivation is for the interviews.

"Any members I've spoken to today, including senior figures – their overwhelming emotion is one of sadness. I don't think anybody is taking sides down here."

Party members in Ballymena, and across north Antrim closed ranks yesterday – declining to take calls.

The overriding feeling among those in the town centre was that the timing of Mr Paisley's remarks had lessened their impact, coming six years after he stepped down as party leader.

Lee Irwin (42) said he believed many in the town held Paisley in their affections but that he didn't stir emotions among locals to the degree he once did. A DUP voter added: "I wouldn't say he is yesterday's man, but it has to be put into context.

"The party is stronger than ever, but I and others like me credit Mr Paisley with getting us here."

Jack Robinson (76) said he believed the revelations would not cause lasting damage to Paisley's legacy as far as DUP supporters were concerned.

But he said that legacy had already been tarnished in the eyes of some when Paisley signed up to power-sharing with Sinn Fein.

That was the sentiment of George Price, who said he had backed Paisley until he went into government with Sinn Fein.

"The Paisley name doesn't stand for what it used to," said the 72-year-old. "I was there at City Hall when he said 'never, never, never', and I was proud of what he stood for."

Two college-aged girls, like many we spoke to of their generation, were oblivious to the saga.

"I've heard of Ian Paisley but I don't care about politics," one said.

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