Belfast Telegraph

Ian Paisley: Three pivotal moments in a life of controversy

Among the many memorable incidents in Ian Paisley's career, these key incidents serve best to illuminate the complexity of the man, says Ivan Little.

When he received his calling to Christ

His decision to come to the power-sharing table with Sinn Fein may have been one of the most surprising political conversions in Northern Ireland's history, but Ian Paisley's religious beliefs were never shaken from the moment he 'came to the Lord' 82 years ago.

His father James, a Baptist pastor, certainly influenced his young son, who'd been born on April 6, 1926, but it was his formidable and forceful Scottish wife Isabella who was to prove to be the greatest inspiration on the six-year-old Paisley's decision to become a Christian.

His upbringing was text book Orange and Unionist, with everything about it rooted in traditional Protestant values, but Paisley said his boyhood was blissfully happy with laughter-filled holidays, and the lessons he learnt from his family stuck with him throughout his eventful life.

Reading the Bible was de rigueur. And that never changed, something which fellow passengers witnessed as the adult Paisley pored over the scriptures on flights around the world.

The first two years of his life were spent in Armagh, but then came the move to the town which gave him his accent and his identity – Ballymena.

His father had switched to a ministry in the town but the young Paisley was transformed by a talk from Isabella Paisley. "My mother had a very successful and very well attended young people's meeting which was held in the church hall" he would tell an interviewer.

"It was at one of those meetings that she spoke on the text of 'I am the Good Shepherd who giveth his life for the sheep'. I was just a boy of six but I was very deeply impressed with that and after the service I told her I wanted to come to Christ."

And that's precisely what he did. But in the background there was political unrest and Paisley's father was aligned with Edward Carson's Ulster Volunteer Force, a source of pride for the DUP leader in later life.

Ian Paisley's first job was as a farm labourer in Tyrone, but he soon ploughed a different furrow as a preacher before being ordained in 1946.

But perhaps just as significantly as his religious and later political awakenings, Ian Paisley was soon to meet the second important and guiding woman in his life, Eileen Cassells.

The couple, who friends say doted on each other right up to the end, would have celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary in less than a month's time.

When he went into government with Sinn Fein

Everyone who is anyone has a theory about it. Ian Paisley either did his deal with republicanism because he had stared death in the face, or because he'd been bullied and bribed into it by Tony Blair, or because his pride and vanity were such that the chance to become Northern Ireland's First Minister was too much for him to refuse.

And yet they're only a few of the reasons put forward for Paisley's stunning decision to bring the DUP and Sinn Fein into what he had always said would have been unholy alliance between his followers and the party he branded as apologists for the IRA.

But that image of him sitting at the same table as Gerry Adams in 2007 to announce their power-sharing breakthrough was one of the most astonishing pictures ever to emerge in the turbulent history of Northern Ireland.

What is certain is that Paisley was under intense pressure from a huge range of sources to do what he had only a short time earlier vowed he would not do – form an Executive with Sinn Fein.

One former ally said he didn't believe he didn't have a Damascus conversion, though he conceded Paisley's health was a major factor.

"He was gravely ill. It made him weaker physically and I think it also made him more vulnerable to all the other pressures working on him from different directions at St Andrew's.

"He knew other members of his party were waiting in the wings for him to crumble."

Other people who were close to Paisley claimed that Tony Blair intimidated the DUP leader, with whom he had been having not only political negotiations but also discussions about the Prime Minister's decision to become a Catholic.

It was said Blair made it clear to him that if Paisley didn't share power, the upshot would be a joint authority agreement between the Dublin and London governments.

The source said: "That's what I believe Ian Paisley was alluding to when he spoke of sinister forces at work and when he famously said in his last interview, 'If we had turned back, God help this country and what it would have come to'."

Another source said that wielding a carrot and a stick, Blair was also encouraging Paisley, who was by now the leader of the largest Unionist party, to think what life would be like and what his legacy would be if he became First Minister.

When he gave his final parting shots in a final interview

The DUP and Free Presbyterians fear Ian Paisley could come back to haunt them from beyond the grave with more explosive accusations about the way they treated him before his death.

According to one former DUP activist, there's a real concern within the party and inside Paisley's church that the incendiary comments made in his so-called final interviews for a BBC documentary in January won't be the end of the bitter recriminations from the late politician.

Before the TV broadcasts, there were reports that the former DUP leader was writing his memoirs with the assistance of his wife Eileen, who has been described by some observers as the 'power behind the Paisley throne'. And it was an open secret that the couple were angry about how Dr Paisley had been treated by his erstwhile political and church colleagues.

What will happen now in the wake of the 88-year-old politician's death last week is a matter of conjecture.

"I can't imagine that the tapes are the final chapter of the story," said one source.

In the TV interviews earlier this year, the former First Minister said he had been told to quit by senior figures in his party and forced to resign as Moderator of his church.

In the same programmes, Dr Paisley's wife Eileen – Lady Bannside – called Nigel Dodds a cheeky sod and, in a reference to Peter Robinson's family, said they'd been a source of sleaze, an unmistakeable reference to Iris Robinson's sexual dalliances with a young businessman several years earlier.

The Free Presbyterian church, which Dr Paisley founded, was accused of acting in a nasty, ungodly and unChristian manner in pressuring him to resign as Moderator.

Lady Bannside said the church had broken her husband's heart.

The DUP and the church have always rejected the claims in the programme, but the wounds are deep.

Observers have said it's no coincidence that the Paisley family have decided to have their own private service for this very public figure.

Up until a few years ago it would have been impossible to imagine a scenario in which the party and church faithful would have been excluded from saying farewell to him.

"But the same people who won't be getting a chance to mourn him will now be wondering what may come out about the rifts in the future," said one analyst.

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