Belfast Telegraph

Ian Paisley: A man with a mission and a destiny to lead

By Liam Clarke

Ian Paisley is often considered an enigma. Personally I can't see it. His career path from disturber of the peace to peacemaker seems plain enough. So many politicians have moved from the extreme of politics to the centre it is almost the norm.

What is remarkable is the energy, charisma and determination he brought to the task of climbing the greasy pole and making the compromises necessary to create stability.

Once over lunch, the key to his political persona was tossed to me in casual conversation with a politician who knew him well. "Why did he not join the Orange Order, had he some theological objection?" I asked. My guest snorted: "It is not that, it's just that he can't be in charge of it. Ian never joins anything he can't lead."

Ian Paisley was a man with a strong sense of mission; he believed in providence and with God guiding him it was not appropriate to take his lead from someone else.

Not only did he have this belief but he was capable of communicating it to others. Like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair or Martin McGuinness, he could work a room. He was a people person who remembered names and when he talked to you it seemed as if you had his full attention. He made people feel valued and in return most of those he met liked and trusted him, at least for the moments he was in contact with them.

DUP members and Free Presbyterians often described their movements as "like a family". Yet for many years, in fact as long as he was able to do so, he ruled both church and party like an autocrat.

A strong man who never publicly admitted fault, he could be self-deprecating and amusing in private. John Hume, the former SDLP leader, liked to tell a story about the days when they were both MEPs and Dr Paisley was vetoing political compromise in Northern Ireland. Mr Hume asked: "Ian, if the word 'no' were to be removed from the English language, you'd be speechless, wouldn't you?"

"No, I wouldn't!" came the reply.

Years later Ian Paisley made the biggest political compromise of all when he sat chuckling with Martin McGuinness as the two of them shared power in 2007.

He remained active and energetic to such an advanced age that it is easy to forget how much of Dr Paisley's career had elapsed before the Troubles started. In 1969, when he was jailed for organising illegal demonstrations against the Civil Rights Movement, he was already 43.

His thunderous style had been forged in gospel halls, he was regarded as an outsider and for years he relished the role. An early role model was William P Nicholson, a Bangor-born evangelist known as "the Tornado of the Pulpit" for the direct and unadorned preaching style he cultivated during sermons in a shipyard shed.

Nicholson died in 1962. Ian Paisley, 36 at the time, was particularly struck by a prayer in which WP Nicholson asked God to give him "a rough tongue like an old cow ... and make this preacher a disturber of hell and the devil."

It was an approach which characterised the future Lord Bannside's early years. History is littered with his hard words. "Exaggeration, scurrility and abuse" were terms used by Lord Scarman to describe Paisley's style in a judicial report on the disorder that led to the deployment of British troops in 1969.

Although the Law Lord found that these words could have roused fury and raised tensions, he concluded that Dr Paisley had not been party "to any of the acts of violence investigated by us".

However, loyalist extremists, including a UVF member on murder charges, did cite Dr Paisley's fiery oratory as an influence on their decision to take up the gun. By 1970 Dr Paisley had already brought down, as he put it, a Captain and a Major, Terence O'Neill and James Chichester-Clark, two leaders of the Ulster Unionist Party. He even greeted Sean Lemass, the Taoiseach, with a barrage of snowballs and abuse when he visited Stormont.

The leader of his own church and party, with a PhD bought at a degree mill, Dr Paisley was seen by the establishment as a dangerous and threatening outsider.

When he felt the Belfast Telegraph was not giving him the coverage he deserved, he started his own paper, the Protestant Telegraph, where his critique of appeasing unionism and the errors of Rome was given full play.

Paisleyism's potential to move into the mainstream and take on the institutions which shunned it became clear in the Westminster by-election of 1970. Standing as a Protestant Unionist, Dr Paisley won the North Antrim seat for the first time.

He had only stood because HM Clark, the unionist candidate, had burnt a poster of him. He held the seat, often with record-breaking majorities, until 2010 when he passed it on to his son Ian.

The DUP was formed in 1971; the history of the Troubles documents its march towards centre stage and leadership of political unionism. At first Paisley's lieutenants ranged from the barrister Desmond Boal to Rev William Beattie, but he found his perfect political partner when he co-opted Peter Robinson as DUP general secretary in 1975. In some ways they were polar opposites; still, they complemented each other. At 27, Robinson was still cutting his political teeth, and was young enough not to be threatening or challenging to Paisley's leadership.

Where Dr Paisley was fiery and impulsive, Mr Robinson was cool and calculating with a steady will. Brought into politics by anger at the IRA murder of a boyhood friend, Robinson developed a strategic vision to steer a party driven by Paisley's powerful personality.

As Lord Scarman had said, Dr Paisley was often close to violence and disorder; his uncompromising words may have inspired others who overstepped the mark, but he was never caught in the fallout.

He benefited from the Ulster Workers Council of 1974, which defeated the Sunningdale power-sharing initiative.

In 1977 he called for a second strike, pledging to retire if it failed, but when it did collapse he was in Canada, his political career uninterrupted. The loyalist paramilitaries who had supported the strike never trusted him again.

At times he seemed to compromise – he was adept at throwing out bait and withdrawing it – but his influence grew by regularly warning of political sell-out and threatening trouble. The DUP analysis, like that of the loyalist paramilitaries, was that Westminster would yield to pressure from the IRA unless unionism could demonstrate the will to resist.

This brought him into direct conflict with British policy which was for power-sharing and closer links with the Republic.

"He is a destructive critic, unable to create even a party which is more than a vehicle for himself. And if he were to try to be constructive, he would most probably not be able to maintain his political position," was the judgment of Sir David Blatherwick, a distinguished diplomat in confidential advice to the government in 1981. "Were Paisley to disappear overnight a major obstacle to reconciliation and progress would have vanished with him," Sir David added.

Dr Paisley probably saw his role as building unionist unity and preventing the UUP from falling in with British plans until the DUP could become the leading force. A lesson in the limitations under which he operated was delivered in the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister, and Garret Fitzgerald, the Taoiseach, in 1985.

In Martyrs Memorial Church he called for God to "take vengeance" on the prime minister, calling her a "wicked, treacherous, lying woman".

Two decades were spent vainly seeking to smash the agreement. It was only replaced in 1999 by the Good Friday Agreement, which he also opposed.

Like it or not the two despised agreements set the groundwork for his triumph, removing the Republic's constitutional claim over Northern Ireland in return for increased cross-border co-operation and power-sharing at Stormont.

When the DUP became the largest party in 2003, republicans realised that no settlement would stick without his approval, so they held back the final acts of decommissioning until he led unionism.

Unfortunately his health was in decline, he had a leaking heart valve which sapped his vigour and prevented him from flying. There were doubts that he would survive long enough to reach agreement.

His road to Damascus moment came when he stopped off to see a specialist in Glasgow as he was driven back from inconclusive talks in Leeds Castle. The doctor adjusted his medication, bringing about an improvement which he took as sign that God wanted him to make peace. He had, he said "come through the valley of death".

Flattery also helped. Peter Hain, the Secretary of State on whose watch the St Andrews Agreement concluded, tells how he groomed Dr Paisley's ambitions.

"I resolved at the outset to treat Ian Paisley as the First Minister in waiting. 'You will have to deal with the problem when you are in charge, Ian,' I would say if he lobbied me on a local issue. He would deny a willingness to accept the post, while chortling knowingly," Mr Hain wrote.

At a Christmas 2005 tea in Hillsborough, Dr Paisley went beyond chortling and told Mr Hain straight out that he would like to be First Minister, adding "but only for a while. I want to see my people safe, then step down".

The 'while' turned into a full parliamentary term, during which Dr Paisley joked with party members that he wished to use his old friend Strom Thurmond as a role model. A South Carolina Senator, Thurmond retired, aged 100, and died a few months later.

Like Lord Bannside, Thurmond had started life as an extremist. Openly racist, he once declared "that there's not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the negro race into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches".

It was reminiscent of one of Lord Bannside's early outbursts that Catholics "breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin".

Thurmond ended his career employing black staffers, sending his daughter to a mixed school and supporting moves for Martin Luther King's birthday to become a federal holiday.

Like him, Lord Bannside never disowned his earlier views.

The key to it all was probably lay in what I was told at that lunch all those years ago – Ian Paisley couldn't truly support anything couldn't lead. His defining sense of his own destiny was both a strength and a weakness.

This man's extraordinary personality has defined more than 50 years of our history and made that deadly and hopeful age his own.

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