‘Dad’s a hero and I’m so proud to follow him’
His father transformed Northern Ireland politics and now Ian Paisley Jnr is making his own mark in the House of Commons, writes David McKittrick
Ian Paisley Jnr's eyes shine with love and admiration when he speaks of Ian Paisley, the father who has just passed on his seat to his son after four decades in the Commons.
Paisley Jnr — the new MP for North Antrim — shows real tenderness when he speaks of his larger-than-life father who, after a lifetime as a warrior glorying in battle, suddenly helped changed the face of Irish politics by reaching an accommodation with republicans.
That sealed the deal on the peace process which has brought such improvements. It means that Jnr's career will, in all likelihood, be far less fraught and controversial than that of his father, who is now a member of the House of Lords.
Father and son recently strolled through the Commons together, heading for a short cut to leave the building. “We were about to go through,” recounts Paisley Jnr, “and I said to him, ‘You can't go through there — it's only for Members and you're a Stranger now.' And the two of us had a good old laugh, but I think at that point it really hit him.
“Then he said, ‘Let's see if they stop me.' We walked on through and not a word was said.”
Paisley Jnr roared with laughter as he recalled the moment. He said he had found a warm welcome at Westminster, ranging from the Prime Minister to the doormen.
The doormen recalled, he said with a smile, the times when the Speaker ordered them to eject his occasionally obstreperous father from the chamber.
Although Paisley Jnr does not use the phrase ‘peace process’, saying that it is in the lexicon of nationalists, he gives his father much credit for the transformation from combat to accommodation.
“He was the only person who could do it. He spent 20, 30 years building up a parcel of trust. People said, ‘Trust the Big Man’.
“I've always been proud of my dad. I don't collect heroes as a rule, but I do believe my father is a hero; a very heroic person and so I'm very, very proud to have his name.”
Just as his father's rhetoric has softened in recent years from the belligerent to the reconciliatory, so Paisley Jrn often deploys the language of a new neighbourliness.
For example, he declares that the DUP and Sinn Fein “clearly collectively want a successful Northern Ireland where we can bring our children up successfully’’. But at the same time the old Paisleyite tradition of political skirmishing lives on.
One example came when the recent report of the shootings on Bloody Sunday concluded that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, probably had a sub-machine gun.
Asked whether this conjured up an image of the Sinn Fein figure with a machine gun, Paisley's reply was caustic. “I never imagined him without it,” he retorted.
“His agenda in the past was to murder his way to a united Ireland. I have some satisfaction that he failed and that he has had to go down a political road to try and reach his objectives. I'm quite happy for him to do that — but I don't forget what he did to get to that point.”
In the coalition which rules Belfast there is plenty of room for confrontational rhetoric and indeed name-calling, particularly on the loyalist side. Thus Paisley Jnr can say Martin McGuinness — his Governmental partner — had been a member of a murderous organisation and the administration will not fall.
At one stage Paisley Jnr toyed with journalism, but his destiny was to follow in his father's giant footsteps.
He took a degree in history followed by a Master's degree in Irish politics.
His time at Queen’s University in Belfast was something of a political apprenticeship, since unionist and republican students had many run-ins. When the university dropped the playing of the national anthem at one of its ceremonies Paisley Jnr defiantly brought along a tape recorder and loudly played the anthem.
A turning point for him came two years ago when he resigned as a junior minister at the Assembly following controversies centreing on his links with a north Antrim builder and developer. It seemed a major setback, but inquiries found no fault with his behaviour.
“It was very difficult at the time, with huge pressure on myself and my family. It was all unjust,” he complained. “I resigned because I could resign and then I could come back.”
While Paisley Snr is regarded as anti-Catholic, Paisley Jnr said he has a number of Catholic friends. “I do business with Roman Catholics; I do business for Roman Catholics. Most people come up and will actually say, ‘Will you do this for me? And by the way I wouldn't be on your side.' So be it.”
What are the prospects, though, for lessening the deep divisions among unionist and republican, Catholic and Protestant? “I think it's going to take another generation to get out of that. Young people today are still as sectarian as my generation was. I think that element is going to take a very, very long time to change.”
While unionists today generally accept Sinn Fein as governmental partners, the prospect of Martin McGuinness as First Minister is too dreadful for many to contemplate. This is sparking calls for rival unionist parties to sink their often bitter differences to keep Sinn Fein out.
“Sinn Fein are only the largest party by 0.5% of the vote,” he insisted. “That's why I don't think we should panic the electorate about this. Unionists are far too quick at setting up bogey men and scaring other people.”
Referring to the dwindling unionist turnout, he added: “The big problem with scaring people in the current climate is that it just turns people off. They say: a plague on all your houses. We can't actually afford to upset people.”
Protestant displeasure with unionist leaders was obvious in the election, when the heads of all parties were punished at the polls and Peter Robinson lost his Westminster seat.
Paisley Jnr denied any wish to become leader of his party, shaking his head as he insisted: “I've no ambition for that at all. I've never had any ambition to get anywhere beyond where I am today.
“Some people sought to put the knife in, in order to stop me, because they were concerned about me wanting to be leader. Well, they misjudged me completely.”
Paisley Jnr concluded on a positive note: “We need to draw a line so we can move forward. Sinn Fein can present their analysis and I can present mine and we can argue over it, but meanwhile the country doesn't move forward. We really need to get the focus right; to direct all our politicians' energies and effort into making this place really work.
“I've a 16-year-old son who asks me what the Troubles were about — now that's pretty good.
“I hope that in 15 years time the Troubles will be a distant memory; the past.”