Belfast Telegraph

Paisley critical: Moderator hails great qualities of Big Ian

By David Young and Deric Henderson

The next moderator of the Presbyterian Church has joined a chorus of well-wishers, including Peter Robinson Martin McGuinness, expressing his best wishes for the Rev Ian Paisley, who remains seriously ill in hospital.

Stormont First Minister and Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness had earlier been in contact with the 85-year-old's family as they maintained a vigil at his bedside.

The Rev Roy Patton said his thoughts were with the former Free Presbyterian leader.

"We have had our differences in the past but it would be inappropriate to dwell on those differences at the present time but rather recognise the qualities that Dr Paisley has brought to his ministry, his faith, his pastoral word and his desire to serve in the ways in which we all seek to serve," he said.

"We want to convey to Dr Paisley and to Baroness Paisley and to the family our support and our prayers."

The former Assembly first minister set up the Free Presbyterian Church in 1951 after a split with the main Presbyterian Church.

Free Presbyterianism was established after a conflict between some members of a congregation in Crossgar, Co Down, and the Presbyterian church over the use of a church hall.

Former First Minister Mr Paisley continues to be treated in intensive care for suspected heart failure.

He was rushed to the hospital on Sunday, just 10 days after preaching his final sermon as a church minister.

Close family have remained with him at the Ulster Hospital, Dundonald, on the eastern outskirts of Belfast.

A spokesman for Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness said: "The First Minister and the deputy First Minister have both been in contact with the Paisley family. They have offered their best wishes to Dr Paisley and his family and call on the community to give prayerful support to Ian and his family at this time.

"The First Minister and the deputy First Minister would appeal for the Paisley family to be given the space and privacy they deserve and that their wishes are respected."

Mr Paisley is a former moderator and founding member of the Free Presbyterian Church and was MP for north Antrim for almost 40 years.

His son Ian junior, who succeeded him at Westminster, was with other family members at the hospital through the day. He left at about 4.30pm without making any public comment on his father's condition.

There had been concerns several years ago about Mr Paisley's health, when he lost weight and looked gaunt.

But he made a good recovery from heart problems and while his voice was showing signs of obvious weakness, some people who were there for his farewell sermon at the Martyrs Memorial Church in Belfast on January 27 remarked on how well he appeared for his age.

After withdrawing from church and public life he was planning to write his autobiography.

Mr Paisley, once a fierce opponent of sharing government powers with nationalists and republicans in Northern Ireland, was elected First Minister in May 2007 with Martin McGuinness, a former IRA leader in Londonderry, as deputy First Minister.

It was a remarkable partnership, the two men becoming firm professional and personal friends, and who were later nicknamed the "Chuckle Brothers".

Mr Paisley's five children - twin sons Ian Jnr and Kyle, an ordained minister as well, and three daughters, Rhonda, Sharon and Cherith - were among the 3,000 people for his final address.

Now known as Lord Bannside, he said: "I am exceedingly happy that I've had the privilege of being the preacher here for 65 years, and that's a long time.

"We have seen a miraculous work done, and we have seen a great change in our city in many ways. We've seen a change spiritually by people having respect for the Bible."

He underwent tests for an undisclosed illness in summer 2004 and afterwards admitted he had "walked in death's shadow".

Some years later he had a pacemaker fitted after feeling unwell at the House of Lords.

Mr Paisley was a fierce critic of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which led to the formation of the first power-sharing administration at Stormont since 1974.

But in the aftermath of the signing of another political arrangement which became known as the St Andrews Agreement of 2006, he underwent an astonishing political transformation which culminated with him going into power with Sinn Fein a year later.

It was a deal which would have been unimaginable at the height of the IRA terrorist campaign, but this was a much different Ian Paisley from the firebrand preacher who spent decades on the margins of political power, damning the Catholic Church, and who was once thrown out of the European Parliament for denouncing Pope John Paul II as the anti-Christ.

He stood down as First Minister in May 2008 with his long-time deputy party leader Peter Robinson taking over around the same time as he was made a life peer in Gordon Brown's Dissolution Honours List. He was MP for North Antrim from June 1970 until May 2010.

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