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IRA plot to murder Ian Paisley on day of bloodshed failed when he left home early, his widow Eileen reveals

By Liam Clarke

Eileen Paisley has revealed that there was a plot to murder her husband on the same day as Rev Robert Bradford, the first unionist MP to be murdered in the Troubles.

Rev Bradford, then Ulster Unionist MP for South Belfast, was shot dead by a five-strong IRA squad while conducting a constituency clinic at Finaghy on November 14, 1981.

"Ian was supposed to have been shot at the same time, but he left home early that day," Baroness Paisley revealed.

Another man, Robert Campbell, was also murdered alongside Rev Bradford.

Baroness Paisley was told that the intention had been to shoot the-then DUP leader with low-velocity bullets.

She said: "[They are] the type which would not go out the other side of the car, but would bounce around until they hit something."

She added she believed her husband left home at 7am that morning, before later changing his schedule.

There have always been theories around the murder of Mr Bradford, a former member of the Vanguard movement who was regarded as a hard-liner.

An IRA statement accused him of "winding up the loyalist paramilitary machine" by strong statements against the IRA hunger strike, in which 10 prisoners died, and accusing republicans of racketeering.

His assassination was generally seen as an attempt to produce a loyalist backlash that would increase support for the IRA.

In the event, there was no descent into chaos, though there was tension and several murders in the weeks after it. The simultaneous assassination of Ian Paisley would have considerably increased the chances of uncontrollable violence.

There have been theories that Rev Bradford was set up by the RUC's Special Branch, or at least that they had prior intelligence and did not intervene for fear of compromising their sources.

Baroness Paisley said she knew nothing of this. "There was always something funny about it, but I have seen no evidence he was set up," she told this paper, adding: "We never had any problems with the police".

The year after the killing, she and Nora Bradford, the MP's widow, visited the US when Ian Paisley was banned from entering the country at the behest of Senator Edward Kennedy. Dr Paisley had alleged a "conspiracy between the Thatcher Government and the US Government to sell out Ulster".

However, he was able to get around the ban. "Ian was able to broadcast from Toronto and they asked me to attend the New York Press Club to read out a message from him," Baroness Paisley said.

Despite the security pressure from republicans throughout their life, Ms Paisley told how she now gets on with them and keeps in touch with Martin McGuinness.

"I might feel differently if I had a husband or a brother or a child killed," she conceded, adding that she backed the power-sharing agreement at Stormont.

Seated in the beautiful Bannside Library she and her family created in her husband's memory, she wanted to talk mainly about him rather than the present day DUP. She had been critical of how her husband's departure as DUP leader in May 2010 was handled, suggesting he had been pushed by colleagues before his work was finished.

He was 84 at the time, and when it was put to her that most people had already retired by then, she said: "He was in his 80s all right, but his mind was sharp right up to the day before he died."

She added: "He and Martin McGuinness were friends. I never expected it to happen, but they worked well together. People made fun of them for being the 'Chuckle Brothers', but many people found it reassuring that they were doing their best together."

Her devotion to her husband's memory is obvious. She has decorated the library with memorabilia. He brought brass animals home with him when he was away, and there they are amongst the walls of books - a tiger, a dragon, a greyhound and an elephant. He used to like piles of books on his desk - a pine table now in the library - and to plough through them in the evenings.

"Do you know he could ring me from England or anywhere and say, 'Eileen, there is a book on the fifth shelf, it is about three books in or whatever', and he would tell me the chapter and get me to read out the section he wanted" she said.

While she feels he could have carried on, she has no objection to a woman leading the DUP, and she remembers her husband's old opponent Margaret Thatcher as a strong leader.

Baroness Paisley remembers Lord Bannside's youth and the tales of it. She said that once, when he was in Sunday school or scripture class and they were teaching about the last judgment, "Ian jumped up and said 'I don't want to be a lost sheep. I want to be one who is found'". Now she gets chocolate sheep made up at a local shop, and hands them out to children who visit, telling them the story and giving them a card.

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