Ian Paisley Jr: 'I've always been proud of dad – and proud to bear his name'

His father transformed Irish politics, and now Ian Paisley Jr is making his mark at Westminster. David McKittrick meets him
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ian Paisley Jr's eyes shine with love and admiration when he speaks of Ian Paisley, the father who has just passed on his seat to his son after four decades in the Commons. The son – the new MP for North Antrim – shows real tenderness when he speaks of his larger-than-life father who, after a lifetime as a warrior glorying in battle, suddenly helped changed the face of Irish politics by reaching an accommodation with republicans.

That sealed the deal on the peace process which has brought such improvements. It means that Jr's career will, in all likelihood, be far less fraught and controversial than that of his father, who is now a member of the House of Lords.

Father and son recently strolled through the Commons together, heading for a short cut to leave the building. "We were about to go through," recounts Paisley Jr, "and I said to him, 'You can't go through there – it's only for Members and you're a Stranger now.' "And the two of us had a good old laugh, but I think at that point it really hit him. Then he said, 'Let's see if they stop me.' We walked on through and not a word was said."

Paisley Jr roared with laughter as he recalled the moment. He said he had found a warm welcome at Westminster, ranging from the Prime Minister to the doormen. The doormen recalled, he said with a smile, the times when the Speaker ordered them to eject his occasionally obstreperous father from the chamber.

Although Paisley Jr does not use the phrase "peace process", saying that it is in the lexicon of nationalists, he gives his father much credit for the transformation from combat to accommodation.

"He was the only person who could do it," he contended. "He spent 20, 30 years building up a parcel of trust. People said, 'Trust the Big Man.' My father's a leader of men. You take the bruises in that game and he took a few, but ultimately he was successful," he said with some pride.

"I've always been proud of my dad," he added. "I don't collect heroes as a rule, but I do believe my father is a hero; a very heroic person and so I'm very, very proud to have his name."

Just as his father's rhetoric has softened in recent years from the belligerent to the reconciliatory, so Paisley Jr often deploys the language of a new neighbourliness.

For example, he declares that his Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein "clearly collectively want a successful Northern Ireland where we can bring our children up successfully." But at the same time the old Paisleyite tradition of political skirmishing lives on. One example came when the recent report of the shootings on Bloody Sunday concluded that the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness probably had a machine-gun.

Asked whether this conjured up an image of the Sinn Fein figure with a machine-gun, Paisley's reply was caustic. "I never imagined him without it," he retorted. "His agenda in the past was to murder his way to a united Ireland. I have some satisfaction that he failed and that he has had to go down a political road to try and reach his objectives. I'm quite happy for him to do that – but I don't forget what he did to get to that point."

His reply captures much about the new Paisleyism and indeed the new Northern Ireland. Old animosities still smoulder, but they do so within a new political dispensation headed by Democratic Unionist party leader Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.

The two parties – sworn enemies for decades – got together long before the Conservatives and the LibDems and have been in office together for some years. Sometimes it has been smooth, sometimes rocky, but then unionism and republicanism have had to span a chasm far wider than that which confronted David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

One big difference is that in the coalition which rules Belfast there is plenty of room for confrontational rhetoric and indeed name-calling, particularly on the loyalist side.

Thus Paisley Jr can say Martin McGuinness – his governmental partner – had been a member of a murderous organisation and the administration will not fall. There will probably be no response at all to such words, which in the Belfast of today are more likely to produce shrugs than heated exchanges. So the new MP is quite happy to work with a man like McGuinness? "Of course I am," came his ready response. "I helped negotiate a deal that allowed for that. We talk, yes.

"There's no point in pretending to the public that our flesh is crawling and we can't even talk to people.

"To get on; to make this work, you've got to have good manners; you've got to bite your tongue. I think I can maybe achieve more by shaking your hand and talking to you than slapping you in the face."

At one stage Paisley Jr toyed with journalism, but his destiny was to follow in his father's giant footsteps. He took a degree in history followed by a master's in Irish politics, areas of study which help explain why, among the caricatures on his office wall, is one of Charles Stewart Parnell.

Parnell was a Protestant, but no unionist and is today revered as one of Irish history's great leaders. "A Protestant nationalist," Paisley described him with enthusiasm. "An incredibly interesting character."

His time at university in Belfast was something of a political apprenticeship, since unionist and republican students had many run-ins. He led the opposition, for example to a proposal to honour Mairead Farrell, a student and IRA member who was shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar in 1988.

When the university dropped the playing of the national anthem at one of its ceremonies Paisley Jr defiantly brought along a tape recorder and loudly played the anthem.

Such protests were highly reminiscent of those staged by his father in his dissenting heyday. Such Junior juvenilia and penchant for mischief carried on for some years after he entered politics, his critics dismissing him as immature and forever in the shadow of his formidable father.

A turning point for him came two years ago when he resigned as a junior minister at the Belfast Assembly following controversies centering on his links with a North Antrim builder and developer. It seemed a major setback but inquiries found no fault with his behaviour. It certainly did him no lasting damage among North Antrim's Protestants, who voted him in to succeed his father with a thumping majority.

"It was very difficult at the time, with huge pressure on myself and my family. It was all unjust," he complained. "I resigned because I could resign and then I could come back. Timing and judgement are everything in politics and the timing of my enemies was for them too soon.

"I had time to clear my name and get out the other end."

Asked who these enemies are, he chuckled but gave no reply. He did not say so, but everyone knows there are different factions within the DUP, with no love lost between rival Paisley and Robinson camps.

After his resignation he seemed to calm down and become less excitable and impetuous; more thoughtful, less of a headline-hunter. Why should that be? "Maybe because I know I've arrived," was his answer. "I'm doing what I really want to do; wanted to do for a long time. You can probably get away with a lot in the shadow, but now the buck stops here. Maybe that's it."

While Paisley Senior is regarded as anti-Catholic, Paisley Jr said he has a number of Catholic friends. The Belfast grammar school he attended had around 30 per cent Catholic pupils. He said: "I do business with Roman Catholics; I do business for Roman Catholics. Most people come up and will actually say, 'Will you do this for me? And by the way I wouldn't be on your side.' So be it."

What are the prospects, though, for lessening the deep divisions among unionist and republican, Catholic and Protestant? Like everyone else in Northern Ireland, he has no easy answers. His reply was: "I think it's going to take another generation to get out of that. Young people today are still as sectarian as my generation was. I think that element is going to take a very, very long time to change."

In the meantime, despite his assertions that republicanism has lost out, unionists seem much more worried about the future than are supporters of Sinn Fein. The Sinn Fein vote is on the rise, so that in the Westminster election the party was the biggest in terms of votes.

Meanwhile, although unionists are worried, many of them stay at home and do not vote. This has led to major unionist concerns that in the next elections to the Belfast Assembly, which are due next spring, Sinn Fein might win the most seats and could therefore lay claim to the top post.

While unionists today generally accept Sinn Fein as governmental partners, the prospect of Martin McGuinness as First Minister is too dreadful for many to contemplate. This is sparking calls for rival unionist parties to sink their often bitter differences to keep Sinn Fein out.

Paisley Jr delved into psephological statistics to assert that unionists should not be alarmed by the prospect of Martin McGuinness snatching the top job.

"Sinn Fein are only the largest party by 0.5 per cent of the vote," he insisted. "That's why I don't think we should panic the electorate about this. Unionists are far too quick at setting up bogey men and scaring other people."

Referring to the dwindling unionist turnout, he added: "The big problem with scaring people in the current climate is that it just turns people off. They say: a plague on all your houses. We can't actually afford to upset people."

Protestant displeasure with unionist leaders was obvious in the election, when the heads of all parties were punished at the polls and Peter Robinson lost his Westminster seat.

Paisley Jr denied any wish to become leader of his party, shaking his head as he insisted: "I've no ambition for that at all. I've never had any ambition to get anywhere beyond where I am today. Some people sought to put the knife in, in order to stop me, because they were concerned about me wanting to be leader. Well, they misjudged me completely."

As his often trenchant language illustrates, Paisley Mark Two resorts fairly easily to the language of conflict and confrontation: he is, after all, his father's son. Yet he, like his party, has come to accept working in government with republicans.

The rhetoric is one thing; the pragmatic reality is another, for he and his party are not going to destroy an accommodation which is part of his father's legacy. The formula is one of electoral and rhetorical competition running alongside co-operation in government.

Paisley Jr concluded on a positive note: "We need to draw a line so we can move forward. Sinn Fein can present their analysis and I can present mine and we can argue over it, but meanwhile the country doesn't move forward. We really need to get the focus right; to direct all our politicians' energies and effort into making this place really work and make it the envy of many other European states.

"If we do that we will be eternally thanked by the collective community of Northern Ireland.

"I've a sixteen-year-old son who asks me what the troubles were about – now that's pretty good. I hope that in fifteen years time the Troubles will be a distant memory; the past."