Belfast Telegraph

Ian Paisley death: From firebrand to First Minister ...the remarkable journey of a true political colossus

By Alf McCreary

Lord Bannside was one of the most significant politicians in the history of the UK and the Irish Republic during the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st century. He remained a major figure until his death yesterday, after a short illness. He was 88.

Better known as Big Ian or The Doc, as well as the more formal Reverend Dr Ian Paisley, he was regarded by many observers as one of the people most responsible for the numerous upheavals and deadlocks that paralysed Northern Ireland politics from the late 1960s onwards.

This was played out to a background of violence during which well over 3,000 civilians, security force members and paramilitaries perished in the middle of vicious and sustained republican and loyalist paramilitary campaigns.

Paradoxically, Paisley was also regarded as the man who did most to establish the power-sharing agreement at Stormont. Such was his stature, he was able to persuade key representatives of the unionist community to go into government with Sinn Fein.

Paisley was a remarkable politician and preacher who formed the breakaway Free Presbyterian Church in 1951 and the Democratic Unionist Party, which he then led from 1971-2008. After a decades-long struggle with the Ulster Unionist Party, he emerged victorious in 2005 as the main leader of unionism.

In May 2007, he became First Minister in Stormont and forged an unlikely but effective partnership with the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein. They were quickly christened the Chuckle Brothers.

Ian Richard Kyle Paisley, the son of a Baptist minister was born in Armagh on April 6, 1926. He showed early promise as a preacher and delivered his first sermon at 16. In 1951, he formed the Free Presbyterian Church on the Ravenhill Road in Belfast, and remained Moderator until 2008.

He was the longest surviving head of any church in recent times, apart from the Queen.

Paisley's powerful mixture of firebrand preaching and deep evangelical conservatism attracted a large following. His Free Presbyterianism proved so successful that the large Martyrs' Memorial Church was opened in 1969.

He came to political prominence in the early 1960s by protesting against the flying of a Union flag at half-mast at Belfast City Hall following the death of Pope John XXIII.

Paisley always had a keen eye for a symbolic gesture, and in January 1965 he created headlines by throwing snowballs at the motorcade of Sean Lemass, the Irish Premier, at Stormont after his historic visit with unionist Prime Minister Captain Terence O'Neill.

Paisley set out to destroy O'Neill, and he did so. His unflinching hostility helped topple the hapless unionist premier after the start of civil rights demonstrations, and the RUC's battering of civil rights marchers in Londonderry on October 5, 1968 created major international headlines, from which the ruling unionist party never fully recovered. Paisley remained an effective street protester against civil rights, and he served six months in prison for unlawful assembly after obstructing a planned march in his native Armagh in 1968.

He also had an association with the shadowy Third Force, and many of his political opponents often tried to claim he was linked to loyalist paramilitarism.

Using his unique mixture of barnstorming rhetoric and ruthless political opportunism, he remained a formidable opponent of the Ulster Unionists and of all attempts to form a power-sharing administration at Stormont.

He was a Westminster MP from 1970-2010, a long-term MEP, and a member of various Stormont administrations including, more recently, the Northern Ireland Assembly from 1998-2011.

His party was strongly opposed to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which led to the widespread 'Ulster Says No' campaign. He and his party were also bitterly against the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and he remained steadfastly against power-sharing until the St Andrews Agreement of 2006.

In a major shift shortly afterwards, Paisley decided to share power with Sinn Fein and the other Stormont parties. He became First Minister in May 2007 and formed a good working relationship with Martin McGuinness until his retirement in June 2008.

This unlikely rapprochement continued for a short time between Paisley's successor Peter Robinson and McGuinness, but the relationship later soured, and the Stormont administration remains gripped in deadlock.

Paisley's change of heart on power-sharing was never fully explained, least of all by the man himself, but some observers claimed it was purely the result of his massive ego. Having at last reached the pinnacle of Ulster unionism, he was able to deliver the prize of power-sharing and to claim nearly all the credit. Others attribute his reversal of attitude to the advice of his wife Baroness Paisley to whom he remained extremely close throughout their long marriage. It is suggested she asked her husband if he wanted to be remembered as a political builder or a wrecker, and that he chose the former.

Paisley was a deeply committed family man. He often talked about the need for peace in Ulster for his grandchildren and their generation. This may have been another strong motive for his decision.

It is further suggested that a serious illness several years ago may have given him more opportunity for serious introspection.

None of these theories was confirmed by Paisley who kept his own counsel on the reasons for one of the most dramatic decisions of his political life.

Paisley was said to be working on his long-awaited autobiography, and there will be disappointment among friends, supporters, political commentators and future historians that his death occurred before he could throw light on these matters.

Paisley opened a remarkable political Pandora's Box earlier this year when he gave an in-depth TV interview to the journalist Eamonn Mallie. In a frank series of revelations, he showed considerable bitterness and claimed that he was ousted both by the Free Presbyterian Church and the DUP.

This could be taken as the sour and disgruntled musings of an old man with too much time on his hands, and the revelations did him no credit, instead raising the suggestion that his ultimate move to power-sharing was actually a clever ploy to become the number one politician while also wearing the mantle of a peacemaker.

Throughout his political career, Paisley had a gift for showmanship. Whether he was protesting at Belfast City Hall, on the Falls Road or at the European Parliament when he denounced the presence of Pope John Paul II, it was always in full view.

Paisley's political language, which in his earlier days was often scurrilous, usually had the essence of a telling soundbite. He regularly denounced successive Popes as "old red socks" and he dismissed Sir Arthur Young, a senior police officer drafted in to Northern Ireland, as "Sir Artful Tongue".

Despite his often rough public exterior, Paisley had a great sense of humour and he charmed very many of his political adversaries. He had direct access to British Prime Ministers and Irish Premiers alike, and his influence extended to Washington and Strasbourg, as well as to London and Dublin.

In recent years he became very frail, and one of his last formal engagements was when he preached for the final time at the Martyrs' Memorial Church during a farewell service for his 65 years of ministry. At that service he told his fellow worshippers, almost as an aside: "I don't know how long I am for this world."

Despite his political conversion to power-sharing, he remained an extremely conservative evangelical Protestant right to the very end of his life.

Paisley is survived by his wife Eileen, his twin sons Ian and Kyle, his daughters Sharon, Cherith and Rhonda, and by his wider family.

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