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Armchair general whose last battle ended in defeat

I didn't witness the Divis Street rioting in 1964 when the RUC acted in response to Ian Paisley's demand to remove a tricolour.

Nor was I yet on the road with my reporter's notebook two years later when more rioting ensued as a Paisley-inspired parade coat-trailed through another Catholic area of Belfast.

But, from then on, 'Big Ian', as he was known in my community, became a growing, foreboding image who threatened to produce the political spark that could ignite street frenzy - and frequently did.

There were others, too, fomenting discord in those very early days of the Troubles vastly more dangerous than Ian Paisley, like John McKeague, the east Belfast-based printer who let it be known that 'Big Ian' had double-crossed him and who invariably referred to him as "thon big b******".

McKeague, who founded the Red Hand Commando terror gang, never divulged - to me anyway - what it was that Paisley had done that he felt had betrayed him. It might have been no more than a personal snub deriving from the Free Presbyterian Moderator being told that McKeague was gay.

Throughout his career, Ian Paisley has displayed the trait of exploiting other political figures or groups and then scurrying away from them when either they became an embarrassment, or the action got heavy.

Major Ronnie Bunting was one figure who stood by Ian Paisley's side for a time, from 1969, as the pair hounded the People's Democracy march and, say some eminent historians like Paul Bew, polarised and destroyed the political middle-ground in Northern Ireland.

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Many unionists tired of his antics, some agreeing with the supposed IRA description of him as the 'greatest recruiting sergeant the Provos ever had'.

Others, like one of my bosses in Dublin in the Irish Press group, never tired of inquiring of his antics. "What about Paisley? What's he up to?" was Gerry's weekly refrain.

And to be fair to the 'Doc', like the Duracell bunny, he just kept going and going, seizing the opportunity to become an MP and thereafter developing the Democratic Unionist Party to overtake the party of his first political opponent, Terence O'Neill.

Along the way he created, or supported, the Ulster Constitutional Defence Committee and the Ulster Protestant Volunteers, then later the Third Force in 1981 which became suitably dubbed the Third Farce by contemporary political rivals.

Ulster Resistance followed in 1986 in protest at the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the 'Doc' told the assembled at an Ulster Hall rally that fighting republicanism was the intention.

Resplendent in red beret, it was Paisley again exhorting the 'respectable' unionist proletariat to action while assuming the role of armchair general.

I remember being in an office on the Ravenhill Road in early 1977 speaking to Peter Robinson when the 'Doc' came in and brusquely told his deputy: "Get that man out of here. I have Mr xxxx coming to discuss important matters."

The 'important matters' related to seeking support from the business community for another 1974-style Ulster Workers Council strike - this time organised by the Paisley-controlled Ulster Unionist Action Council. It failed.

I assumed, then, that he didn't much care for me - even though I was a native of his chosen location for a ministry and, as a child, had not kicked any football against the red brick wall of his first little church in Shamrock Street.

For me, as a journalist who spent a considerable part of 40 years following his career, I am left with the abiding image of not just a politician who promised but didn't deliver, but one who caused great hurt along the way.

To paraphrase Enoch Powell, did his political life not end in failure when he was installed at the epicentre of government with the enemy he vowed to smash, Sinn Fein, only to be dumped by his own party. If a (Spike) Milligan-esque 'Ian Paisley: My Part In His Downfall', is written, surely the author will be Vanity Powers.

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