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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Paisley Jr has learned that antagonism can help take you to the top

(Sunday Times)

Ian Paisley Jr's declaration that he was "pretty repulsed" by homosexuals might have sparked an international outcry, but in the ranks of his DUP party there is only bemusement.

"Ian wouldn't have thought he was saying anything out of the ordinary, because those are the sentiments of most of the DUP," says Robin Stirling, a former party councillor. Having quit the party, Stirling now says its attitude towards homosexuals is no different from that of the Nazi party. "They regard gays as the pits."

That is only partly true. Unlike the Nazis, the DUP would never advocate violence against homosexuals. They would happily have them banged up in prison, but violence? Not an option.

In fact Paisley, son of the party's larger-than-life founder, told Dublin's Hot Press music magazine that, despite his revulsion, he was happy to give homosexuals some advice: they should "just free themselves from being gay".

It is not just that he is such a high-profile political scion that has raised the international temperature, but the fact that he also shares responsibility for enforcing gender equality as a junior minister in the province's revived assembly.

Paisley Jr has typically brushed the storm aside. He faces a censure motion in the assembly, but, realistically, his remarks will lose him few friends in his own party.

Paisley Sr once campaigned against legalising homosexuality under the catchy slogan: "Save Ulster from Sodomy." He has also resisted every subsequent attempt at homosexual law reform. Junior describes his father as a hero and role model.

An instinctively homophobic canteen culture, coupled with the feeling that he was only saying what most people think anyway, seems the most likely explanation for the extraordinary outburst. In the same way that his father claims to love Catholics but hate Catholicism, Junior said of homosexuals: "I don't hate them, but I hate what they do."

If people had delved further, they would have spotted that the comments weren't out of character. In a column he once wrote for the Daily Mirror, Junior said: "The Bible teaches man to not only fear sin but to hate sin, yet at the same time to love the sinner. But some brazen homosexuals make it difficult to love the sinner."

Like his father, Junior can be both charming and astute. A few days ago he rang Dermot Ahern to congratulate the republic's foreign minister on Fianna Fail's performance in the general election. In recent weeks he has given a number of impressive television performances, often wiping the floor with his Sinn Féin opponents.

So what possessed this savvy politician to answer the questions put to him on homosexuality so bluntly? It could be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to appeal to the Christian right, which is questioning the DUP's policy of power-sharing with Sinn Féin.

On Friday he was unrepentant, telling the Belfast News Letter: "I don't think my answer was outrageous or offensive." He pointed out that the dictionary definition of repulsion is "disgust", as if there was nothing inherently wrong with that, adding, "That is my opinion . I was honest".

Junior's earliest memories include attending religious and political rallies organised by his father. At the time Paisley Sr was leading a campaign against religious and political liberalism.

It was following one of these rallies in 1971 that Junior, aged just five, had a religious experience that he says shaped his life, saving his soul from the eternal damnation that awaits all those who do not accept Christ as their personal saviour.

In that same year, the DUP was founded by his father, who had already toppled two unionist leaders, Terence O'Neill and James Chichester Clarke, for attempting to share power with nationalists and build links with Dublin.

As well as a twin brother, Kyle, now a Free Presbyterian minister in England, Ian, 40, has three older sisters – Sharon, Rhonda and Cherith. The tightly knit family was marshalled by his mother, Eileen, a quietly spoken matriarch referred to by her husband as "the boss". But for Junior, his father was the role model, an alpha male he has spent most of his life trying to emulate. He told Hot Press: "I think my father is very much a man's man, a tough guy." He imagines people saying "I want to be like Ian Paisley, be a tough guy."

The devotion is evident whenever the two Paisleys are together. Paisley Sr is 81 and during the gruelling St Andrews agreement negotiations his son was constantly at his side. "It was touching," said a participant. "When the old boy dropped his hat, Junior was there to pick it up, calling Paisley 'Dad' and looking out for him."

Paisley Sr, who bought his first doctorate from an American degree mill, ensured his children got a solid grammar-school education. Junior attended Methodist College in Belfast, one of Ulster's top schools, which prides itself on a progressive ethos and attracts Catholic as well as Protestant pupils.

At a time when many Protestants opted for Scottish universities to escape the Troubles, Junior choose Queen's in Belfast. There he established a student DUP association and led protests against attempts to commemorate Mairead Farrell, an IRA member and former student who was shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar. He also opposed the university's decision to stop playing God Save the Queen at graduation ceremonies.

His postgraduate dissertation was Dehra Parker and the role of women in unionism. Parker was the first woman member of the unionist cabinet at Stormont, and a strong critic of his father in her day.

Junior's tutor, Professor Paul Bew, found him a likeable and able student. "Few of the students shared his political outlook and he must have listened to a good deal that he wouldn't have approved of. Through it all he behaved himself impeccably. He was courteous and he certainly delivered academically. There were never any incidents."

Mervyn Storey, a DUP MLA in North Antrim, said that Paisley is "not the sort of a fellow who goes out to deliberately hate somebody." But he does have a reputation for holding grudges. He is a long-standing critic of Nuala O'Loan, the policing ombudsman whose husband, Declan, is an SDLP councillor in Ballymena. Last year the two had a stand-up row in a Belfast coffee shop when O'Loan accused Junior of personalised attacks on her family.

Paisley and his wife, Fiona, have three children. He has written two books, one highlighting the case of the UDR Four, whom he argued were wrongly imprisoned. Three of them were subsequently freed. The second book opposed the Good Friday agreement.

Like Sammy Wilson, his DUP colleague, Junior is a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast and relaxes by taking long bike rides, often turning up at political meetings in leathers. Another interest is collecting 19th-century political cartoons. In 1999 he received a Royal Humane Society award for rescuing a drowning child.

After Queen's, he started his political career working for his father as a researcher. Although he doesn't live in the town, Ballymena is the Paisley political stronghold. Junior now represents North Antrim in the Stormont assembly along with his father and Storey.

"He is an astute politician and a dab hand at taking advantage of the moment," said Storey. "He has always been first out of the blocks when it comes to spotting an issue we can run with."

Although not a member of Ballymena council, Junior still managed to rule its DUP majority with an iron fist. According to its members, Paisley insisted on reviewing and rewriting DUP motions to toughen them up. He supported a strategy of excluding Sinn Féin and the SDLP from office as long as his party had a working majority.

One colleague said: "Last year Ian rewrote a motion opposing a visit by President Mary McAleese to the sixth-form society at Ballymena Academy. His version gave us problems with the governors of the academy and we had to pull back. It was slipshod." Colleagues say that spelling is a weakness.

The Hot Press controversy means Junior will probably face questions in Stormont; Martin McGuinness has already called for the comments to be withdrawn. But since when did being criticised by Sinn Féin, the gay rights lobby and liberal newspaper columnists ever hurt a Paisley?

If the boy has learnt one thing from his father, it must surely be that if your antagonism annoys one faction, it can make you look tough and take you to the top politically with another.

June 3, 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on June 3, 2007.