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The night Ian Paisley accused TV legend Bill of being drunk

By Ivan Little

Published 27/05/2015

Bill O'Herlihy
Bill O'Herlihy
Rev Ian Paisley

The RTE presenter who was the target for Ian Paisley's famous "let me smell your breath" barb over 40 years ago recalled the incident after he retired.

Bill O'Herlihy (76), who died on Monday, was best known as the face of RTE's football coverage in the Republic having hosted 10 World Cups and a similar number of Olympic Games.

But the suave Corkman, who sometimes had to separate football panellists Johnny Giles and Eamon Dunphy during angry rows in the middle of live coverage, had cut his teeth reporting on current affairs.

It was during his days on the road that he crossed swords with Rev Paisley, who accused him of being drunk during a TV interview. It came as news to O'Herlihy, who belonged to the abstinence group the Pioneers, and who didn't touch alcohol.

Last year, in a radio interview after his retirement from RTE, O'Herlihy recalled his encounter with the firebrand unionist politician in Ballymena in 1969.

He described the confrontation as the most embarrassing of his lengthy career in front of the cameras.

Mr Paisley had just been beaten in an election by his old foe Captain Terence O'Neill and the interviewee lost his temper with the RTE man over a question he put to him.

"I can't remember what I asked him," said O'Herlihy. "But Ian Paisley said: 'Young man, let me smell your breath', implying that I had been drinking.

"I was a Pioneer and I said to myself: 'What in the name of God is he talking about'?"

The interview was conducted on the stage of Ballymena Town Hall and O'Herlihy said it later transpired that there had been a drunk at the back of a large crowd and he was pushing them.

He added: "So when I was doing the interview with Paisley I was swaying backwards and forwards and he got the smell of drink coming over my head."

The broadcaster said he told Mr Paisley he was an Orangeman, and he replied: "No Papist was ever an Orangeman."

O'Herlihy countered: "I said I was an Orangeman in the sense that I didn't drink."

Looking back, O'Herlihy said he could laugh about Rev Paisley's comments, which were reported right around the world.

But he said they were damaging for him at the time "because he was accusing of me of being drunk on the job".

He added "It devalued me completely. I might as well have been mowing the lawn after that. He answered the questions but everyone was breaking their backside laughing at me and no one was taking my questions seriously."

Rev Paisley died last year at the age of 88. Mr O'Herlihy's funeral will take place on Friday.

Belfast Telegraph

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