Belfast Telegraph

State papers: Ian Paisley demanded a picture of the Pope blessing King Billy for his office

By Adrian Rutherford

IAN Paisley requested that a painting – said to contain an image of the Pope – be placed in his office at Stormont, newly released papers have revealed.

The DUP leader was "very keen" on acquiring the controversial work by Dutch artist Pieter van der Muelen, said civil servants.

The monumental canvas is said to depict the arrival of King William III in Ireland in the 1690s.

But the historic painting had caused unionist fury because it also contains an image of Pope Innocent XI, resting on a cloud, bestowing a blessing on William.

The man in front of William's horse was also said to be a Franciscan friar holding rosary beads.

The painting had previously been physically attacked for its "papist" inferences.

By the 1980s it was stored at the Public Record Office.

But a confidential file from 1983, released today under the 30-year rule, reveals how officials were approached by the clerk of the Assembly, John Kennedy, asking for the painting to be returned.

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A letter to Northern Ireland Civil Service chief Sir Ewart Bell said: "The pressure for the return of the painting is being exerted by the Rev Ian Paisley who desires it for his room at Stormont. Seemingly he is very keen to have it."

A separate letter warns that Mr Paisley (below) was "unlikely to take no for an answer".

In a reply to the original request, a civil servant wrote: "I think PRO could justifiably return it to Mr Kennedy – it is for him to decide what to do with it. Presumably it will be safe and not molested again. It is not impossible that Mr Paisley would publicise his 'acquisition' but it would simply be the picture had been handed back to its owner."

The old Stormont Government bought the painting unseen for £209 and four shillings in 1933.

Newspaper reports describe how, at the unveiling ceremony in the lobby, cheers turned to gasps of horror when MPs realised the Pope was in the picture.

In a debate on March 8, 1933, MP John Nixon asked Prime Minister James Craig why a painting with the Pope was at Stormont.

Some say it was this exchange which led to Craig's remark: "I am an Orangeman first and a Protestant and a member of parliament afterwards... all I boast is that we have a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people."

The story took a further twist when Nixon brought some visitors on a tour of Stormont, and they came face to face the painting.

An enraged Charles Forster, a Scottish Protestant League member, threw red paint at the painting, while colleague Mary Ratcliffe slashed it with a knife. Both were fined £65.

During the restoration the friar's rosary was removed. The affair proved to be such an embarrassment that the painting was removed from view.

Since 2007 it has been hanging in the waiting area of the Speaker's Office.

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