Belfast Telegraph

Ian Paisley's funeral: How different it might all have been if his rift with church and party hadn't happened

By Ivan Little

Under a slate grey sky amid the rolling green hills of Co Down, Ian Paisley, one of the biggest figures in modern Ulster politics, was laid to rest yesterday in one of the smallest funerals ever seen here, in a grave he'd picked for himself.

Only the former First Minister's immediate family and a few trusted friends were at the hilltop graveyard above Ballygowan Free Presbyterian Church for this lowest of low-key committals which, it's understood, Ian Paisley personally orchestrated to exclude his erstwhile religious and political allies who he blamed for forcing him from office.

The politician and preacher, who in 1985 attracted a quarter-of -a-million fired-up loyalists to Belfast City Hall for his famous "Never, never, never, never" tirade against the Hillsborough Agreement, was mourned yesterday by only a handful of people who were able to fit comfortably inside a tent erected to keep outsiders from seeing the lowering of his coffin into the Ulster soil he loved.

The simplicity of the service was accentuated by the presence of only two wreaths on the former DUP leader's grave – a family bouquet of white flowers including roses and lilies together with a tiny, more colourful posy sitting beside a simple plate bearing his ennobled name, Lord Bannside.

On their way up a rough-hewn path to the burial ground, mourners in the small knot of family cars passed two signs proclaiming: 'It is time to seek The Lord'.

Ian Paisley jnr, the son who took his father's name, his political ideology, and latterly his Westminster seat, helped carry the coffin as his mother Eileen Paisley and her other children and grandchildren looked on.

It was the day they'd known was coming for weeks, but the anguish etched on their faces from the pain of losing their adoring patriarch hadn't been diminished completely by the fervent faith he'd instilled in them.

Earlier, at their home in Cyprus Avenue, the family had gathered around Dr Paisley in death as they'd done in life, but this time for a service of farewell and thanksgiving.

Just a couple of miles away at the Free Presbyterian headquarters on the Ravenhill Road, the Union flag flew at half-mast – the only sign that anything was amiss.

There were no flowers, no messages, no tributes. Nothing but the name on the wall of the Paisley jubilee complex building bore testimony to the man who built the church and the Free Presbyterian doctrine.

How different it all might have been if there'd been no rift between Dr Paisley and the church, who he said made his position as Moderator untenable because it opposed his decision to go into a power-sharing government with Sinn Fein.

Thousands would probably have packed the church for a valedictory service for Dr Paisley and the streets would undoubtedly have been thronged with his supporters if there'd been no fall-out with the DUP, whose leaders he accused of giving him no option but to quit as First Minister.

The DUP hierarchy respected the family's wishes that their ex-leader's funeral should be private, though just up the road from Cyprus Avenue there was a queue in the Stormont chamber to praise Dr Paisley from some of the politicians who had felt the sharp end of Eileen Paisley's tongue over the way she said they had treated her "heartbroken" husband. No flags flew over Stormont, but at City Hall, the scene of so much rancour over the Union flag, the standard was at half-mast for the 88-year-old politician who died on Friday.

Inside, Gerry Adams, who sat beside Ian Paisley in that game-changing moment of history in 2007 when they announced they were setting up an Executive together, signed a book of condolence.

Around the same time, at the stroke of noon, a hearse carrying Dr Paisley's coffin pulled out of the laneway from his home onto Cyprus Avenue, a tree-lined thoroughfare made famous in several songs by Van Morrison.

TV cameras weren't there and one or two photographers kept their distance as PSNI motorcycle outriders weaved through the east Belfast traffic to ensure a smooth passage for the cortege.

The occasional curious onlooker stopped and stared and one man doffed his cap in a spontaneous gesture of respect.

On its journey up the Ballygowan Road, the cortege passed Roselawn cemetery, where Ian Paisley had lost count of the number of funerals of terror victims he attended and conducted over the years.

En route to Ballygowan, the mourners passed within a short distance of the La Mon bomb attack in February 1978, when 12 people were killed.

Five years ago Ian Paisley acceded to the families' wishes that he should stay away from a 30th anniversary service they organised after they claimed he had let them down by sitting in government with Martin McGuinness.

In Ballygowan, where an Ulster Scots roadside sign, Fair Fa Ye, welcomes visitors to the Ards district, few people knew that Dr Paisley's final resting place would be in their village. One man pointed to a mural on a wall to demonstrate the views of the people who live there. It read: 'Ballygowan loyalists support the Union flag at Belfast City Hall'.

More than 200 years ago the political complexion of the area was somewhat more complicated. For the towns of Ballygowan and nearby Saintfield were once closely associated with the United Irishmen, a movement of rebellious Presbyterians who in 1798 fought against British rule.

The irony of it all wouldn't have been lost on Dr Paisley, a self-acknowledged rebellious Free Presbyterian who united many Irishmen against him in his early days of dogmatic Protestantism but united thousands more behind him in his later quest for peace.

What he would have made of his fellow politicians' eulogies in Stormont yesterday will, of course, never be known. One suspects that Ian Richard Kyle Paisley would have been more concerned with the thoughts of his beloved family and friends who gathered on that Ballygowan hillside yesterday to say goodbye to the man who changed his mind and changed the history of Northern Ireland in the process.

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