Belfast Telegraph

Like sparring partners, Telegraph and Paisley had mutual respect

By Paul Connolly

I'm suing you, you know," the big voice boomed to my right. "Oh really, Dr Paisley?" I said, a bit too nonchalantly. "What would that be about?"

"Not you personally – the Telegraph. That front page article last week, can't remember who wrote it," he replied.

"The lawyers say I've an arguable case and we should sue and we're going to, apparently."

"Oh," says I. "It'll probably come across my desk at some stage then. If you like, I'll give you a call when I get it and we can have a chat about it. You know, resolve it man-to-man, that sort of thing."

Another chuckle. "I don't think the briefs would be too happy if I started negotiating freelance all of a sudden," he said, munching on what I seem to remember was a plate of parma ham and melon. The conversation then moved on to the inevitable – politics, of course.

And you know what, that solicitor's letter never did arrive.

I suspect he had been advised he had a case, but the Big Man quietly shelved it. He was like that, you see. Big in every way, including being the possessor of a big chin on which to take things.

Another side of Ian Paisley was visible that day too, and no, not what you might think.

You see, I was sitting beside him at a lunch function and we were being served by a teenage waiter whose accent to me sounded pure west Belfast. And the way he trembled when serving Paisley suggested it as well.

The poor kid repeatedly asked the Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church if he wanted red or white wine.

He must have been the only person this side of the Urals who didn't know.

I thought Mr Paisley would surely erupt with a tirade or at least a stern lecture on the 'Devil's Buttermilk', but each time he gently and politely declined.

He could dish it out, the Big Man could. But he could take it, too, unlike many others. He had many disputes with the Belfast Telegraph, particularly in the 1960s and 70s, but in the end I like to think he understood that the paper would stay true to its principles and he, of all people, would surely admire that.

It was fitting then, that the paper's tributes to Mr Paisley were sincere, thoughtful and warm-spirited. Saturday's front page, "Goodbye Big Man", I thought particularly inspired, catching the mood of many in Northern Ireland who despaired about his past but who admired that giant leap he – of all people – made to help get all of us across the Rubicon.

The breadth and depth of coverage is where newspapers can really put pure blue water between themselves and television and the internet.

It was also fitting that the Paisleys were allowed time and space to grieve and to bury. In line with a request from the Paisley family for privacy, the Belfast Telegraph chose not to use images of the funeral procession or relatives entering church, although some other publications did.

I've written before that it was my view that Ian Paisley understood only too well the personal, political and religious cost of what he was doing when he entered office with Martin McGuinness. How messy it would get. That he knew he would alienate much of the very base he had nurtured for decades; that many would turn on him and it would be all the more wounding because it was personal. Doctrinal, almost.

History will correctly judge harshly his earlier years. But in the grand sweep of things he will be remembered for shouldering an immense burden he knew would be heavy and complex.

In the end, Ian Paisley did what great leaders do; he led.

BTreaderseditor@gmail.com @BelTelReaderEd

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