Ian Paisley: from turbulent priest to right honourable statesman

Ian Paisley

'Let me smell yurr breath!" he would roar at journalists, a terrifying request since in Northern Ireland a certain amount of the devil's buttermilk was necessary for most of us reporters to function.

The Rev Dr Ian Paisley (his doctorate came from a Bible college in the American south, and did not rank with one granted by Harvard, or even with a mail-order diploma) was already clocked as a turbulent priest in the mid-1960s, even before the return of the Troubles in 1968.

In 1965 he threw snowballs at the then Irish prime minister, Seán Lemass. The BBC made a film about him, with the general theme, "Is this guy a nutter, or what?" His long march from demented demagogue to respected peer of the realm was yet to begin.

In 1966 he was enraged by the decision to name a new bridge in Belfast not after Carson, the great hero of Ulster Protestantism, but after the Queen. He called the decision "a sop to Catholics". The unionists might be loyal to the British crown, but that loyalty did not always extend to the actual monarch.

The Guardian, one of the few papers that showed the faintest interest in Ulster at the time, reflected: "If Mr Paisley has his way, there could well be a religious war here [in Ulster] quite soon."

When the Troubles began seriously – with the civil rights marches of October 1968, then the first deaths in 1969 – Paisley was always at the forefront of Protestant, unionist, loyalist opinion – chiefly working class.

The Ulster Unionists were led by the landed gentry, trusted by the Tories to keep a lid on things, and ignored altogether by Labour. As the violence grew, and Protestants learned to their horror that they were regarded by most of the British media and the political classes as no better than the Catholics and possibly worse, they became furious, and Paisley expressed that rage, giving their inchoate anger a top-dressing of Old Testament religion. (Not that his followers would have understood every detail of his fundamentalist doctrines.)

Addressing his mass rallies, he would call attention to the presence of the hated Martin Bell, then the BBC's main Northern Ireland reporter. He would denounce violence while expressing the crowd's "justifiable anger against Muster Murrr-tin Bell". Luckily no one laid a finger on Bell; the power of TV gives celebrities a certain protection.

Jim Callaghan, then Labour's home secretary, got a flavour of his creed when he met him in Belfast. "Come, Mr Paisley, we are all the children of God," he said at one point. "No, home secretary," Paisley boomed in reply, "we are all the children of WRATH!"

But even while the death rate was reaching 300 a year, Paisley started to think ahead. He began visiting Dublin to probe various possibilities – of a united Ireland with a power-sharing government, or an Ulster independent of both Britain and the south.

Word got out, and his poll ratings collapsed. (I had ironically written that he wore his loyalism like a breastplate. This became: "Even the Guardian said that my loyalty was my shining armour.") The inner conflict was always there: he adored rousing rabbles, and yet yearned to be accepted as a serious politician, even a peacemaker.

And there were always two Paisleys. Chat to him, and you found a jovial, humorous conversationalist, if at times a trifle heavy handed.

And it became a cliche that he was as helpful to Catholic constituents as to Protestants, ie those who were saved from the fiery pit. (In 1969 he said of Catholics: "They breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin.")

But you couldn't always tell. He actively worked against the Sunningdale agreement, signed in late 1973, whose power-sharing provisions were wrecked less than a year later by a loyalist strike.

He denounced the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985 with what appeared to be a call for the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, to be smote by lightning: addressing the Lord, he said: "We pray this night that thou wouldst deal with the prime minister of our country. Oh God, in wrath take vengeance against this wicked, treacherous and lying woman: take vengeance upon her, oh Lord, and grant that we shall see a demonstration of thy power!"

Even Ed Miliband does not address the prime minister like that.

Three years later, by now one of Northern Ireland's members of the European parliament – Paisley sat in every assembly he qualified for – he addressed Pope John Paul II, the huge voice thundering: "I denounce you as the antichrist!" He was hustled out of the chamber by other MEPs, including – a nice touch – Otto von Habsburg.

But change was on its way. Sir John Wilsey, who was in charge of British troops in Northern Ireland, recalls having Paisley in for a briefing at the army HQ in Lisburn. "After we had talked I invited him to lunch in the mess. I did this with all people who had come to see me. But he was delighted. 'In all my time, I have never been invited to lunch,' he told me."

In the end, that's what Paisley wanted – recognition. He became first minister of Northern Ireland. The pictures of him laughing with the former IRA chief Martin McGuinness won them the nickname of the Chuckle Brothers.

It was Tony Blair, who had a way of instinctively zeroing in on people's desires, who made him a privy counsellor – the street ranter had become the right honourable. And in 2010 Gordon Brown sent him to the House of Lords where, as Baron Bannside, he ended his political career, having moved in almost half a century from a stroppy, seditious Savonarola to an admired and even loved elder statesman.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Simon Hoggart, for The Guardian on Friday 12th September 2014 20.01 Europe/London

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