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Ian Paisley death: He was lauded and reviled ... but a key figure of our times


Controversial figure: ultimately, Paisley was squeezed towards compromise by British policy

Controversial figure: ultimately, Paisley was squeezed towards compromise by British policy

Controversial figure: ultimately, Paisley was squeezed towards compromise by British policy

We will never see his like again. There are very few people about whom it can be said that history would not have been the same without them, but for good or ill – and in truth it is a bit of both – Ian Paisley is one of those unique individuals.

He had a strength, charisma, longevity and self-confidence that was not matched by any other political player in his lifetime.

He revelled in it, often feeling that the hand of God has sustained him while his rivals, who had more normal political careers of briefer span, were brought low.

It contributed to a sense of destiny which made him impervious to criticism.

There is no doubt that if Ian Paisley had died young or emigrated to Canada like his brother Robert, Northern Ireland's history for the past 50 years would have taken a different course.

In the pre-Troubles era, he spent much of his time whipping up unionist fears.

Men claiming allegiance to him were jailed for bombings, sometimes carried out with the intention that they should be blamed on the IRA, though Paisley himself denied inciting them.

His inflammatory rhetoric – his warnings that Catholics would "breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin" and Ulster would be sold down the river if it did not fight for its existence – was, he said, not meant to imply physical violence.

Not everyone understood that point. Hugh McClean, when questioned by police about a 1966 sectarian murder, told detectives: "I am terribly sorry I ever heard of that man Paisley or decided to follow him."

He added that, when he joined the UVF: "I was asked did I agree with Paisley and was I prepared to follow him. I said that I was."

Paisley frequently condemned those who took the law into their own hands like this, earning him the animosity of many of the first generation of loyalist paramilitary leaders.

'The Grand Old Duke of York' they dubbed him, suggesting that he talked a good fight but would march them up to the top of the hill and then down again.

His own strategy was political, but it played on the fears and insecurity of the loyalist community.

There were competing hardline unionist leaders but they are hardly remembered now.

Without Dr Paisley's influence, his clarity and his drive, it is possible that a more moderate Ulster Unionist leader could have found accommodation with the civil rights movement and the IRA might not have got lift-off.

Instead he brought a succession down – Captain Terence O'Neill, Major James Chichester Clark and Brian Faulkner were all unionist prime ministers who sneered at him but whose fall he hastened.

"Compromisers", as he saw them, whose chances of making a lasting compromise he stymied.

It is noticeable that, when he stepped down from Stormont, Ian Paisley was praised by both Peter Robinson, his successor, and Martin McGuinness, who talked of their friendship, but the feelings were not reciprocated in Dr Paisley's own speech.

He never mentioned Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam or Peter Hain either.

The one politician he praised was the one who got the better of him – Margaret Thatcher.

"She was a very clever woman," he said.

"She was mightier at her task than any man whom I saw hold that office in my day."

The Iron Lady had pushed through the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the teeth of his opposition and that of the rest of unionism.

When she fell from power he took the credit, a little ludicrously, but his speech in Stormont was more generous.

The truth is that Paisley was, in the long term, squeezed towards compromise by British policy.

He was powerless to impede the closer co-operation with the Republic which Mrs Thatcher established and which gradually sweated down both his own intransigence and the IRA campaign.

The other factor was his ascent to the leadership of unionism.

By the time he made peace, he had moved from being an outsider to a position in which he could at last feel confident and secure. Nobody could hope to successfully challenge him.

Towards the end, Sinn Fein knew that an accommodation could not be reached if Dr Paisley was opposed to it.

This made them hold back on final moves like decommissioning until David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader who won a Nobel Peace Prize for entering power-sharing, had been superseded.

They gave Dr Paisley the break he wanted.

He started his long political career as a hedge preacher and political firebrand who hurled abuse from the sidelines of politics. He ended it in the bosom of the establishment – member of the House of Lords, a friend of taoisigh and with the praise of Sinn Fein leaders ringing in his ears.

To top it all, the Union has never been so secure.

It was an outcome that only he could have brought about.

That is likely to be the judgment of history, but it may also record that the impasse he solved was largely of his own making.

His attitude to authority was one of defiance, until he was in charge

Ian Paisley used to say that he never read a book less than 100 years old.

He said he didn't want to be influenced by passing trends. Another reason may have been he did not respect the authority of the living, of people who could change their minds.

He thought more like a prophet, there to put people right and denounce the wicked, than a democratic politician. He did not join organisations, he founded and led them.

He started his own church and his own political party, both of which he led well into his 80s. He never joined a loyal order and he ended by denouncing allies who might rival his authority as traitors. James Molyneaux, the mild-mannered UUP chief, was branded Judas Iscariot.

Dr Paisley's attitude to authority was one of defiance until he was himself in charge. A psychiatrist might say that his belief that he was guided and chosen by God was an expression of egotism.

He himself saw ample evidence in his long career that someone up there did indeed like him and was using him as an instrument.

Many people want to lead and be in charge, but most are cut down. Not many achieve what Ian Paisley has achieved.

Towards the end, DUP handlers managed to keep that side of him off camera but it came through from time to time.

As recently as 2008, he suggested that God had at length commanded him to go into government with Sinn Fein and had been preparing him for this role for years.

“You would have had to have the sort of life I had and all the battles and all the woe and all the smoke and all the fire,” Paisley told RTE's Tommy Gorman.

“And then God says, ‘You are ready for the last act that I want you to do'.”

The battles and woe of the Troubles had, he suggested, been like a moral gymnasium. They had strengthened him and prepared him to lead on the divinely ordained path of peace.

He viewed his survival as evidence that God still had work for him. Some supporters say his decades of vigour, while political rivals grew old and faded, fuelled his belief that he was being spared for some great work. It gave him the drive and determination to carry on despite opposition.

It was a great work which would put him at the top of the heap where he had always believed he was meant to be.

For all his thunderous oratory, the human side was never far away

Ian Paisley could be kind and helpful and had the politician's skill of remembering people.

We weren't close, and more often than not I had written critically of him, but when we met he often addressed me as “big man” and shook my hand, making cracks like: “You didn't think I'd win this one”.

Once he even gave me tips on dieting. “The weight came off me slowly,” he told me on a canvass in Ballymena.

“The secret is don't put food in your mouth after seven, eating at night is the worst.”

He added that he liked to drink apple vinegar and honey every evening; he believed it helped.

That was a human side shown to an irritating journalist.

On another occasion, early in both our careers, I photographed him in the Europa Hotel as he led a rowdy mob in opposition to a delegation of Dublin councillors who were staying there.

He grimaced and shook his fist at me every time I caught his eye. It felt a bit ominous.

“Why is he doing that?” I asked a DUP politician who is still prominent.

“He sees the camera; don't worry, he's trying to give you the shot you need,” came the reply.

In 1985, around the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, I had a German TV crew to film him at a commemoration for Protestant Martyrs drowned in the 1640s near Portadown.

Would he mind saying something about European support for the agreement, I inquired.

Indeed not, this was a religious occasion, he snorted, suggesting that I should have more manners than to ask.

Once the cameras rolled though, he was as good as gold.

In thunderous tones, he warned “Herr Kohl and Mrs Thatcher” that the determination of today's Ulster Protestants was as great as those who had given their lives for their faith more than 300 years ago.

It was politically skilful, but to some degree it was a desire to be helpful.

You have got to have time for a man who thinks on his feet like that.

It felt good to be around him.

It was obvious why people took to him.

Belfast Telegraph