Ian Paisley was shielded for years to avoid embarrassment, says DUP over 'untrue and bitter' claims
The DUP has hit back at its leader of more than three decades, accusing him of making "untrue and bitter" comments about party members who tried to hide his frailty from public view.
The DUP said it had shielded Ian Paisley from attention to spare him embarrassment at a time when he was unwell and unable to carry out his duties properly.
The lengthy statement forms a public bookend to the troubled relationship between the now-Lord Bannside and the party he founded and moulded into the largest in Northern Ireland, before taking it into government with Sinn Fein.
It comes ahead of the broadcast of the second part of a BBC interview with Lord Bannside tonight.
It appears to mark the end of any prospect of reconciliation with Peter Robinson, Mr Paisley's successor as DUP leader.
Mr Robinson said last night: "There are many who will believe that in agreeing to participate in these interviews Lord Bannside will have done nothing to enhance his legacy. They will struggle to reconcile the spirit and tone he presents with that which they will have known and admired. This is not the Ian Paisley we knew.
"As someone who faithfully served Dr Paisley for many decades I will make one final sacrifice by not responding and causing any further damage to his legacy beyond that which he has done himself. Rather than return insult for insult, let me bless him with the mercy of my silence and wish him well."
Timothy Johnston, Mr Paisley's former special adviser, said he was "deeply saddened" by the content and tone of the programme.
Mr Paisley said that Mr Johnston conducted a confidential survey among DUP MLAs in early 2008 concerning his leadership.
The results questioned his capacity to do his job and his political judgment, accused him of performing poorly at the Assembly, and claimed he was unable to think on his feet.
It also raised serious doubts over his friendly relationship with deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness.
Mr Johnston, now Mr Robinson's senior adviser, told the programme the survey was conducted at Dr Paisley's request and rejected any suggestion it was framed with the intention of bringing him down.
"Unsurprisingly the events of that time have not been accurately recalled," he said.
"I totally refute any allegation, suggestion or implication that a survey conducted was 'framed' by me or anyone else. Dr Paisley commissioned the survey and was aware of its nature and its findings at the time. At no point then or since has Dr Paisley or Mrs Paisley sought to raise these concerns with me despite having had every opportunity to do so."
Nigel Dodds, who Mr Paisley said gave him a deadline to quit, said time had diminished his former leader's memory.
"What is being said now by Lord Bannside about meetings is inaccurate and stands in stark contrast to everything that he said and did at the time and, indeed, during the years since," the North Belfast MP said.
The DUP statement said Mr Paisley had damaged his legacy.
"In his later years as party leader, many colleagues shielded his frailty from public view, to avoid embarrassment and protect his legacy. Those people are hurt by untrue and bitter comments contained in the documentary," the party stated.
The DUP said it was not granted an advance viewing of the documentary, but said Mr Paisley himself had denied he was "pushed" out of the party after his retirement was announced.
"In those interviews he stated that he had been considering his retirement for some time and had himself chosen the time to stand down," it said. "The public may well ask whether then or now they have been misled.
"Worse, he now seeks to place the responsibility for his decision on those who protected him most when, at 82 years of age, his ability to perform his duties was seriously diminished and causing widespread concern."A venomous version of Ian Paisley's exit from public life A bitter footnote to a political career Paisley: The gloves are off with re-opening of political wounds