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

The extraordinary career of Ian Paisley

(by Suzanne Breen, Sunday Tribune)

The North's First Minister talks to Suzanne Breen about his life and legacy

From the splendour of his new office in Stormont Castle, the Rev Ian Paisley remembers a very different occasion. "I was arrested and locked in the gate-house down there," he says, pointing past vast lawns and rhododendron bushes.

"It was on Mo Mowlam's orders. She accused me of trespass. It was the night of the Good Friday Agreement and I was there to protest. The police interrogated me but they eventually had to let me go for I'd broken no law."

Nobody would dare interrogate, let alone arrest, Paisley these days. Looking down over Stormont's majestic estate, he is – in the words of the Sinatra song – "king of the hill, top of the heap". He recalls being "kicked, jeered and spat on" that night by loyalist paramilitary supporters of the Agreement.

"The media treated me as a dinosaur, a creature that should have died before the ark. They never thought I'd end up here! But I don't believe in crowing about it. 'Forgive your enemies', I say. 'Be sweet to those who abuse you, because life is too short to be sour.'"

But just when you think he has gone soft, been bought off by the establishment he once railed against, a flash of the old Paisley appears. Two civil-servants separately try to sit in on the interview, perhaps concerned the North's First Minister might say something to jeopardise the blossoming new order.

The first is politely dismissed. The second is told "this is a personal interview", and is swept aside with the wave of a hand: "I don't need minding," Paisley says, shaking his head. "I'm beyond these civil-servants!"

None of his Stormont ministerial colleagues, let alone the Taoiseach or British Prime Minister, would conduct an interview alone and without it tape-recorded. But Ian Paisley has long made his own rules. His has been an extraordinary career.

On his desk sit not bundles of government papers but two bibles. He's preparing a sermon to deliver at his Martyrs' Memorial church later that evening. He reads from Romans chapter 13, a verse in keeping with the spirit of the times: "For now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Let us cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light."

Despite his 81 years, he retains a huge physical presence. He's wearing a snazzy grey suit and admits to having an eye for fashion: "I was once described as the best dressed bigot in Ulster! I choose my own clothes, although Eileen and the girls advise on the co-ordination of ties and shirts."

He sported a black fedora throughout the Assembly election "and I have three or four boaters which I wear on summer holidays". He buys his suits in Bogart's – a trendy tailor's in downtown Belfast, named after Humphrey – not where you'd expect the Free Presbyterian moderator to shop. But Ian Paisley is a man of many surprises.

He was born in Co Armagh, the youngest son of a Baptist preacher. His mother Isabella was a railway worker's daughter from Scotland. Paisley has a brother and sister, Harold and Margaret.

When he was six, he heard his mother preaching about the lost sheep in his father's church. "It was 75 years ago yesterday," he says, "when I found Christ." As a boy, he craved watches. "Every young man wants a silver watch and daddy presented me with one when I was 14. I've collected them from pawn and antique shops ever since."

He has also collected clocks and occasionally wanders around 'The Parsonage', his east Belfast home, setting the hands and winding them up, leaving the house "dinging, donging and chiming all afternoon".

As a teenager, he rose at 4 am to read the bible, but he still wanted to be a sea captain, not a preacher. "Then, when I was 16 and ploughing the fields, the calling came. I gave my first sermon in a tin hut. I was very nervous. I was preaching about the man from Jericho who fell among thieves. After three minutes, I forgot what to say.

"It was nerve-wracking. I had to sit down. 'I'll never preach again', I said. But an older, wiser man advised: 'Don't worry boy. You'll soon get the hang of it and, when you're 70, they won't be able to shut you up.'"

And neither they have. He preaches three times in his Martyrs' Memorial church on Sundays, every Wednesday night, and most Friday afternoons outside Belfast City Hall. He reads the bible from cover-to-cover "twice, sometimes three times a year," he says. "It can't be rushed, it has to be meditated upon. It's a great book for challenging a man. It cracks open every egg and puts the knife through all hypocrisy."

Not that he rammed it down his children's throats, he says. He has three daughters – Sharon, Rhonda, and Cherith; and twin boys – Kyle and Ian jnr. "There is an impression that Ian Paisley was a tyrant of a father, that he ruled his family with an iron rod.

"Nothing could be further from the truth. I never wanted my children to be my clones. I wanted each of them to be their own person, to form their own views, guided by scripture of course. Religion can't be forced on anybody. The power of the gospel is the power to persuade."

What if his children had become atheists or republicans?: "I wouldn't have disowned them. I'd have told them they were wrong, but I'd have loved them whatever they'd done." Paisley led a 'Save Ulster from Sodomy' campaign. What if one of his children had been gay?: "I'd have tried to persuade them it was the wrong course. I wouldn't have cast them out. A child like that needs more love and affection, not less."

And if the young Paisleys had wanted to marry Catholics?: "Growing up they were free to make friends with whomever they wanted. We had Roman Catholics visit the house. If any of my children had chosen to marry one, I'd have hoped to have converted that Roman Catholic through prayer and the bible."

Most nationalists believe Paisley fuelled sectarian hatred and can provide plenty of quotes to support their claims. The North's First Minister denies this: "I dislike the Roman Catholic religion, I make no secret of that. But I've never had any spite against individual Roman Catholics."

Paisley says politics meant he missed precious family time, but he still has fond memories: "Ian jnr was particularly mischievous. Ian was a mouse man. He was always putting mice on the teachers' desks and waiting for the screams!"

Father and son remain close. "Ian hears all the political gossip," Paisley jokes. "Some of them (in and outside the DUP) talk about me behind my back. They think I don't know but I always find out from Ian." Rhonda is a vegetarian "but she hasn't converted me yet". He recalls spotting a Greenpeace sticker in Cherith's car: "I thought, 'not another Paisley in politics!'."

He has 10 grand-children. "I enjoy them all, especially Leah, Cherith's youngest. She's five and full of life. If Leah was in this office now she'd be climbing on top of the table and chairs, and walking along there," Paisley chuckles, pointing to the magnificent marble mantelpiece. The civil-servants would be hyper-ventilating.

But the most important person in his life is clearly his wife Eileen. They met when he was 23 and she was 17. "Eileen says I proposed after three weeks, but I wasn't counting. She turned my head so much I lost track of time. I liked everything about her. She has been my greatest strength. I didn't want a submissive wife. I wanted a woman I could talk to, an equal, and she is much more than my equal. I see no faults in Eileen, and I feel more passionate about her than ever."

They celebrated their golden wedding anniversary last year. In all those years, was Paisley ever tempted to stray? "I wouldn't have had time for another woman, but I'd no interest anyway. I never once found fidelity hard. The heart goes where the love is."

He is unashamedly romantic: "I'm always buying Eileen presents. Never go home empty-handed to the woman you love. Bring her something and she'll love you all the more. I was in a big jeweller's the other day and I saw a silver brooch with a ruby stone. 'Eileen would like that', I thought and I bought it." He never raises his voice to his wife: "She scolds me many times. I say nothing harsh back. A soft answer turneth any woman's wrath!"

Paisley's attitude to women is full of twists and turns. "When you meet a devil wearing trousers it's bad, but a devil wearing a skirt is 10 times worse," he declares. Yet he wants more women in politics and admits the unionist tradition can be "much harder on women" than Irish nationalism.

Sailing to Edinburgh for their 1946 honeymoon was his best ever holiday, he says, "getting away from all the prying eyes back home". Paisley enjoys travelling and recalls visiting Rome: "Architecturally, it was impressive. The dome of St Peter's reminded me of the dome in Belfast City Hall! I got safely in and out of the Vatican. They didn't try to bury me there." He doesn't know where they're holidaying this year: "Eileen always chooses."

The Paisley household has long had pets. When the children were young, their father would take them to the local dog shelter to choose an animal that had been abandoned or ill-treated.

"We had a wonderful dog called 'Bishop'. I named him that because I didn't know many virtuous two-legged bishops so I thought a four-legged one might be better. But he had an insatiable desire for bitches, though he calmed down in later years." There was also 'Captain': "I'd saw 'Down with the Pope!' and Captain would bark. Indeed, if I said 'Down with anything', he'd bark."

Paisley's last dog, 'Bridie', was named after Oliver Cromwell's daughter: "We buried her the other day, she was 16. She was always at the door to welcome me home, tail wagging and jumping all over me, no matter how long I'd been away."

'The Parsonage' is filled with books: over 30,000 theological and classic texts. "I don't read anything by writers of my own generation. I don't want to be influenced by people who are living." He frequents second-hand book shops: buying history books for Ian jnr; theological texts for Kyle who is a minister; art books for Rhonda; and the odd novel for Eileen who loves Maeve Binchy.

After the bible, the book Paisley reads most often is John Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress', an allegorical novel about a Christian's journey to heaven. "It has a marvellous cast of characters: 'Pliable'; 'Obstinate'; 'Mr Feeble Mind; 'Mr Stand Fast'; 'Madam Bubble', an adulteress; and a judge, Lord Hate-good – a crook. I match them to people I know, but I'm not telling you who!"

It's this mischief and humour that many observers overlook in Paisley, amidst the bluster and bombast. He keeps a diary erratically. He reads poetry too, quoting his favourite verse by Rudyard Kipling: "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same. . ."

Handel's Messiah is his favourite piece of music. "I don't like the jazz or rock or any of the other stuff. I'm an old puritan through and through". He sings himself, although "not in tune", but he hates the elitism of those who think they do: "We had a church choir who didn't want the congregation to join in, so I fired the choir. It was an act of dictatorship on behalf of democracy!"

Paisley rarely watches TV: "There's too much dross: I don't like the bad language, immodest dress, drinking and taking the Lord's name in vain." He prefers RTE to the BBC because "it's more critical of the establishment". He accuses the BBC and broadsheet newspapers of "a huge intellectual dumbing down".

He enjoys Westerns, particularly those with John Wayne, "because they've clean language, and the baddies always lose". Two films scripts are being written about Paisley. He denies either has been approved by his family. Would Paisley like to see Liam Neeson in the title role?: "There is no need for anybody to play me. I am here on stage now and I'm doing my own acting."

His hero is Oliver Cromwell: "When I'm in the House of Commons, I look around the benches and think 'Cromwell would have decapitated a few of you boys'. He beheaded a king, so MPs would be small fry to him."

The politicians with whom Paisley has bonded surprise many: "I dislike paper men – men of no opinion, men who stand for nothing. I'm very fond of Alex Salmond (Scottish Nationalist Party leader). I've invited him to Stormont. Tony Benn is my oldest friend in the Commons. We agree on many things, but not Ireland – he's a bit of a republican."

He disliked David Trimble: "It wasn't just that he betrayed the unionist people, he always had his nose in the air, thinking he was better than the rest of us. John Hume and I were polls apart politically but I liked him as a man. I haven't taken to his successor at all. I have no rapport with Mark Durkan."

Amazingly, he has warmed to the Taoiseach: "Oh Bertie, he's full of the Irish blarney! His politics and religion are different to mine but, in my dealings with him, I've found him a man of his word."

Paisley believes the Taoiseach was unfairly criticised over his personal finances: "His enemies had nothing else to hit him with so they focussed on the money. It was a small sum to renovate his house. It's much ado about nothing. In the British system, politicians accept money gifts all the time. What's important is that Bertie Ahern presides over one of the most prosperous European economies. I hope Northern Ireland becomes just as successful."

He isn't surprised Sinn Féin performed poorly in the Dail elections and believes constitutional stability could hurt them in the next Northern elections: "Nationalists are more likely to vote Sinn Féin at times of greater political crisis."

He won't be drawn on his relationship with Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, except to say "it's a work-in, not a love-in". When will he be ready to shake McGuinness's hand? "I don't know. Sinn Féin/IRA has changed. They've taken office in a government which is part and parcel of the UK; they support the police.

"The union is safe for at least 100 years. There will be no united Ireland. Sinn Féin knows this but says the opposite to keep its followers happy. But what Sinn Féin still must do is repent and seek forgiveness for the harm it inflicted on so many people."

Many nationalists believe Paisley should apologise for his past political activities. Doesn't he have regrets?: "We all have regrets. I've said and done things I might now do or say differently. But I believe, on major issues, I made the right decisions."

There is no doubt that he has mellowed: "I want nationalists and unionists to live in Northern Ireland with fair play and no discrimination, and to rejoice that they live here. We can't keep raking over the embers of fires that have long burned out."

In Strasbourg, he denounced Pope John Paul II as the anti-Christ. If Pope Benedict came to Ireland would he meet him as a gesture of reconciliation?: "I don't think so. Martin McGuinness didn't meet the Queen or Prince Charles." But Paisley met Catholic Primate, Archbishop Sean Brady, last year?: "Yes, but he's a constituent of mine. The Pope doesn't have a vote in Northern Ireland, and a good job it is too!"

At his great age, many think Paisley should be in a retirement home, not running the North. Will he ever give his deputy, Peter Robinson, who will be 60 next year, the chance to lead?: "I'm in better health that men in their 50s. I want to get on with the job of First Minister. When I can't do it, I'll know. I'd never push myself beyond my physical capabilities."

He won't comment on who he'd like to take over as DUP leader: "Choosing my successor is for the party as a whole, not me. You can blame me for many things, but you'll never be able to blame me for that!" So what epitaph would Paisley choose for his tombstone? "That's easy," he says: "'Here lies a man who never feared any other man – and very few women.'"

June 3, 2007

This article appeared in the June 3, 2007 edition of the Sunday Tribune.