The Deborah Ross interview: Ian Paisley - what a laugh

A STARK, stone, Orange Lodge on the top of a hill just outside Keady, a small town in Armagh. A gloriously warm evening with a big, pink sun hanging in the sky. A Loyalist gathering in this largely Republican area. Men, women, teenagers, toddlers, babies in prams, crowding the winding, country lanes. A drum and flute marching band. Smart red jackets. Glossy black boots. And the Rev Ian Paisley, up on the open-air platform, speaking mostly in capital letters, as he always does: "A lot of pressure was put on me to be here, there and everywhere tonight, and a lot of people said: `why are you going to keady?' I said, first, because i gave my word and, second, the outposts must be defended. If you don't cover your outposts, there is not much hope for the castle in the middle... and i say to you if there is one spark of traditional unionism in your soul then you will say no to this document... This is conspiracy! a conspiracy to destroy us! say no...!" Huge cheers. Huge claps.

Everything to do with Mr Paisley is huge. The voice. The jaw. The shoulders. The quiff. The trousers. They're the sort of cheap, massive-waisted trousers successful male slimmers save for their "before" and "after" shots when they win Slimmer of the Year. They fit terrifyingly snugly in the "before" one, but can be held out at the waist for six miles or so in the "after one". Mr Paisley, of course, has yet to reach the "after" stage. Once the cheers subside, he goes on: "God is the god of truth and god will defend truth. And I have been called, in these evil days, to stand for the truth. a silly girl asked me today how i knew what god thought and I had to say to her i know because it is written in the bible..." He looks pointedly at me as does everyone else.

I am, yes, "the silly girl who asked me how i knew what god thought".

I have been with Mr Paisley for most of the day, and throughout he has introduced me to everyone as: "the silly girl who asked me how i knew what god thought". He is quite cunning when it comes to intimidation, it appears. However, I'd been given warning he would pick on me tonight. Ian Paisley Jnr works for Ian Paisley Snr, as his political assistant. "Dad's going to pick on you tonight," he had told me with some relish. Ian Jnr is slight and dark and not un-handsome. Ian Snr, I note, likes to boss Ian Jnr around quite a lot. "I am cold! get me my coat!"

It could all be quite funny, I suppose. And it is, in a way, until you realise that what is at stake here is the continuing agony of Northern Ireland - the prolonging of the economic distress, racketeering, hate, killing, sectarian bigotry. Although, that said, Mr Paisley is proud to be a bigot. He reminds you the word comes from "By God", which is what the Protestants cried to proclaim their faith as they were led to the stake during the Spanish Inquisition.

But we are not in the 16th century now, Mr Paisley, I say. Surely, even you can see that it's time to let go of the past for the sake of the future? Surely the question now isn't to whom Northern Ireland belongs, but if people in the late 20th century can decide to live peacefully together in a nation that is not, perhaps, as clearly defined as they would like? He storms: "that is the greatest insult to our country i have ever heard." When Mr Paisley gets excited, he tends to talk not just in capital letters, but in italicised capital letters. He adds: "how would you like it if spain had a say in england's affairs?" I say I wouldn't mind. We'd all get to have naps after lunch. He says: "we are part of the great country that is great britain and we intend to stay part of the great country that is great britain."

If Mr Paisley - MP, MEP - had existed anywhere but Northern Ireland, I'm pretty sure he would have been quickly sidelined as just some ludicrous, evangelical crackpot. A particularly batty Mary Whitehouse in big, old men's trousers, if you like. Here, though, the fertile political climate has given him real power. For the mostly working-class and rural loyalists who fear being wholly Irish more than anything, he is a total champion. He would never betray them by making concessions to Dublin. They can look to him with total confidence. He wasn't surprised when David Trimble rocked with U2, no. "Well, he's rock and rolled with the enemy for long enough!" The Stormont Agreement is "the greatest betrayal ever foisted by a unionist leader on the unionist people!"

Certainly, Mr Paisley has the common touch. He can brilliantly articulate the key fears of some forms of Protestantism. He can make any stance less belligerent than his own look like appeasement. He is a gripping, old- style preacher. As the spearhead of the "United Unionists" campaign to vote "No" in today's referendum, he has possibly gained enough support to threaten the accord. Ian Paisley? A joke? I think not.

We meet, first, at around 2pm, in Portglenone, a small town on the border of North Antrim (Paisley's constituency) and Ulster Mid (the constituency of Martin McGuinness, "who is satan"). Union Flags fly. Telegraph poles are painted red, white and blue. Paisley is here to canvass the breeze- block bungalows, most of which seem to have either mock wishing-wells or gnomes (or both) in their gardens. Paisley's aides are in tow, as are his bodyguards and the press. He will only be visiting loyalist enclaves today. He is also quite cunning when it comes to the media, it would seem.

An old lady in fluffy slippers is out weeding her own gnome-ridden garden. "madam," Mr Paisley calls out. "you are at the grass roots, just like me." He laughs. "ha, ha!" Another thing Mr Paisley is big on is his own jokes. He mocks Mo Mowlam as "the arab in the turban, ha, ha!"

On to the next house. A woman answers the door with a baby in her arms. "you know what friday is, don't you?" "Surely," she says. "we'll show them, won't we?" "We surely will," she says. "forever ulster!" he concludes before marching away. I say to him, Mr Paisley, call yourself a politician? You forgot to kiss the baby! He says: "i don't need any lectures on politics from you, dear." He charges on. He is 72 now, but still has astonishing energy. "My secret! A glass of cider vinegar with some honey in it every morning. you should try it." He doesn't fear dying before his job is done. "I'm getting old, yes, but I'm fit as a fiddle and intend to see off the traitors of ulster before I pass away."

The next house. "are you on the side of god or the side of the devil?" he asks the young man who answers the door. The man is wearing a "No surrender" T-shirt. "ah, you are on god's side, i see!" This is when I ask him how he knows what God thinks. This is when I say, perhaps naively, what kind of God would want people to take sides, and blow each other to bits? This is when he says, furiously: "you ask me how I know what God thinks? Have you never read the book?" A French television journalist intervenes at this point. She wants to know if he still sees the Pope as a threat. He says: "if you think the pope is no longer interested in northern ireland, you are a very stupid person." Henceforward, she is "the stupid person" while I am "the silly girl". We know where we stand, which is nice. Still, I wonder about his copy of The Book. Did it come with the page that says "Love Thy Neighbour" torn out, perhaps?

Anyway, a few more houses, then he's off in his red, loud-speakered Ford. "no mo! vote no! no surrender!" he thunders as he journeys through mid- Ulster. These are his favourite words and expressions, along with "traitor" and "conspiracy" and "betrayal" and "i quite like posh, but suspect sporty is more of a goer." OK, I made up that last one.

Sadly, he has no views on the Spice Girls whatsoever. However, he does have quite strong views on Elton John, who will be giving his first Belfast concert in10 years in the grounds of Stormont next week. "it degrades stormont," he says. "We don't like poofs," Ian Jnr adds cheerfully. Both have, it turns out, been quite active in the Ulster Against Sodomy campaign.

3.30pm: the small hamlet of Tamlaght O' Crilly. I arrive a few minutes after Mr Paisley. Already, he is encircled by fans. "ah, here comes the silly girl who asked what god thought", he announces, making everyone titter. Here, though, we meet our first Protestant committed to voting "yes". She's a young woman with young children. She's sick of the troubles, she says. She wants her kids to know what it's like to live in peace. Mr Paisley says: "Aren't you a witness for Christ?" She says: "I'm a Christian first." He repeats : "Are you or are you not a witness for christ?" She says, pleadingly: "This is the only way forward." He says, shoutingly: "just make sure it isn't a step backwards!"

She is left with tears in her eyes.

No, Catholics are not Christians in Mr Paisley's opinion. Although, that said, he claims not to have a problem with individual Catholics. "My argument is only with the political and doctrinal interference of the Church of Rome." Isn't that like saying I don't mind Jews, I just hate their rituals and synagogues and Torahs and everything? So what that Catholics have mass and saints and all that? What difference does it make how you pray? He says it makes all the difference a difference ever can make. "the truth can only be revealed by christ himself!"

Sometimes, I wonder if Mr Paisley actually wants peace. It might leave him with nothing to do. Can you imagine peace in Northern Ireland? I ask him. He says yes, of course. "There was peace here until the ira started the war 30 years ago!" Meanwhile, though, he is enjoying his "No" campaign "one hundred per-cent!" His virulent and unceasing anti-Catholicism seems to be underwritten by a great deal of sexual imagery. The Catholic Church is "the mother of all harlots". He sold the idea of becoming a European MP to his followers by describing the EC as a Catholic conspiracy.

He listed for his members the number of Catholics in each member country - 10 million in Belgium, 51 million in France etc. - then argued that Protestants urgently needed a champion in this "whorehouse". The Pope, aside from being "the Anti-Christ" is also "The Great Fornicator". I think, actually, Mr Paisley would have made a good pornographer. Perhaps God intended him to become a pornographer but somehow the letters got jumbled into Protestant on the way down.

He is the son of a Baptist minister, brought up in Ballymena, Co Antrim, where he still has his power base. His father, Kyle Paisley, had been deeply affected by the Home Rule crisis in the years before the First World War. Like many of his co-religionists, he signed the Ulster Covenant in September 1912 and joined the Ulster Volunteer Force. He instilled his son with his fears.

Ian Paisley went to the Barry School of Evangelism in South Wales, where he was trained for the ministry in the Reformed Presbyterian Church. But already his individuality was surfacing. After a split in his own small Presbyterian congregation, he founded his own Free Presbyterian Church, and went on to erect, in Belfast, the biggest church built in Britain this century. His career has been full of fallings out. He set up the Democratic Unionist Party (of which he is leader) after falling out with the more mainstream Unionist parties. He set up his own Independent Orange Order after falling out with the established order. Aside from anything else, he may just be temperamentally incapable of co- operating peacefully with anybody.

He has, of course, never been officially implicated in serious violence. But he must have incited it, surely. He once theatrically led drilling on the Antrim Hills, his men brandishing firearms certificates. I ask if he ever worries about doing more harm than good. "harm? harm? how can i do harm when i only speak god's truth." When politics and religion become part of the same package, political argument becomes impossible. Everything, ultimately, comes back to God and faith. And faith, of course, is faith because there is no arguing with it.

4.30pm: Tobermore, Londonderry, and our last stop on the canvassing route. This time, it's a bungalow surrounded by a fence and a gate. A big Alsatian barks fiercely on the other side of it. "i am not afraid of dogs," Mr Paisley claims as he goes through the gate while we all hang behind, terrified. "i am a dog lover. a dog knows a dog lover when it sees one." The Alsatian takes one look at Paisley and darts whimperingly round the back of the house. Certainly, a dog knows an Ian Paisley when it sees one.

I ask Mr Paisley what he'll do if the result of the referendum is a resounding "Yes". It won't be, he says. What if it's 60 per cent "Yes"? That, he says, "will represent a great victory for Unionism." Although Nationalist support virtually guarantees the accord will be approved, the agreement will be unworkable without a Unionist majority.

You can be sure Mr Paisley will make it as unworkable as he can. You can also be sure he'll have been at his local polling station from first thing this morning, to check the ballot boxes before the first vote is even cast: "I wouldn't put it past the British Government, when you think of all their villainies, to bring boxes to the ballot already filled with `Yes' votes. I tell you, I'll have that box open, and I'll put my hand into it and rub it round, just to see there are no votes in it!"

At 8pm, we finish our day on that hillside outside Keady. We conclude it with God Save the Queen and many cries of "god save ulster!" Afterwards, it's tea, sandwiches and cake in the Lodge, prepared by the local womenfolk. Mr Paisley eats all the chocolate marshmallows before anyone else can get a look in. He then says, quite flirtatiously: "ladies. I thank you for this feast. this magnificent feast. but we have another long day of battle ahead tomorrow..." He mock bows, gallantly. The ladies blush and smooth down their A-line skirts and pat their hairdos and look pleased. He looks pleased, too. He then says, jabbing a big finger at me: "My only critic here tonight is her!" Before he disappears, I say to him: "Come on, Mr Paisley. You like me really, don't you? You've just been playing hard to get." He goes: "no!"

With Mr Paisley, you always know where you stand and where you will always stand. It's what makes him so dangerous.

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