Ian Paisley to avoid symbolic parting handshake

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Indy Politics

Ian Paisley will leave office without shaking the hand of his partner in government Martin McGuinness, the 82-year old Democratic Unionist leader revealed today.

Despite a clamour for the symbolic gesture as the North Antrim MP prepares to leave the political front line, he said his relationship with the Sinn Fein deputy leader and former IRA man would remain strictly professional to the last.

Paisley, who said he hoped to take up a role as a trade ambassador for Northern Ireland after he leaves office, will give a valedictory speech to DUP members tonight before handing over the leadership of his party to East Belfast MP Peter Robinson tomorrow morning.

Next Thursday, the current Finance Minister will take over as First Minister.

Handshake or not, Paisley has hailed the achievements he and his once forsworn enemy have managed in their one year together as First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland.

"The first time that I met him I told him we can pull down the blinds and we can give everybody a bloody nose every time we meet," he recalled.

"I said we can do that but not get anywhere with the people.

"I said 'we've a job of work to do and I don't like you and you don't like me and we've never spoke before'."

He continued: "We've never shook hands, I've said to him I don't believe in handshaking, it's whether you have a proper practice (between you).

"And he agreed that we would do our best and we would fight our corner and we'll do our best to try and get decisions made that we can all live with, if not love.

"And that's what we did and I think it's been very successful and I think also the success of it rests on the attitude of the people.

"The Roman Catholic population here and the Protestant population never were as close together as they are today, they are all saying no more bad days, no more killings, we are going this way.

"And that is the greatest thing, there is a great unity.

"Look at the people we've had in here (at Stormont); people that would have pulled one another's eyes out and they have been in here."

Some critics, particularly unionist hardliners, have claimed Paisley became too chummy with McGuinness in government, dubbing the pair the "chuckle brothers".

However the allegations of "sell out" from one-time supporters who've now left the DUP and rebranded themselves as the Traditional Unionist Voice do not bother him.

"I just laugh at them," he said.

"All these people who were DUP people have old grudges in their hearts, this matter we are at today (the status quo at Stormont) is very little to do with it.

"They have old grudges and didn't get (party) nominations and so forth and they've all come out on that wing (the TUV), but that is weakening every day."

As for the post-Paisley era at Stormont, the Ballymena man fully expects things to change under the leadership of his long-time ally, Mr Robinson; in fact he says he would be disappointed if they didn't.

"You'll have a different brand now," he said.

"Peter will be in charge and he will do his own thing in his own way, and rightly so.

"I wouldn't want him doing it any other way, I don't want him to be an aper of me, I want him to be himself.

"And I hope we are going to get a lot more younger people into office in the new councils that are going to be set up (under plans to redraw council boundaries in Northern Ireland in 2011) and also in the next election to the Assembly, there will be a lot of old fellas like me will be paid off and told to go and drink their buttermilk.

"I would like to think that the people that are going to have to live in Northern Ireland are the people that should mould Northern Ireland into the Northern Ireland that they want to have, and that's the younger elements.

"And I look forward to that - I think that will be an evolution and I believe by the grace of God we'll see the end of all these remnants of people who want to kill and destroy."

Mr Paisley is sure the dissident republicans and others who still seek to destabilise the new political arrangements are in their death throes.

That is a far cry from the height of the conflict, when he thought Northern Ireland was on the cusp of slipping into outright civil war.

"I did fear that, I was very, very worried," he said

"We had a terrible time, but I think those bad old days are now past.

"I believe that there are very difficult pockets in Northern Ireland that will have to be squeezed out but I think those pockets do not have the support of the community. I think both communities have set their face against it."

His tenure at the head of government has not been without its low points. The media speculation surrounding his Assembly-member son Ian Jnr's business relationship with north Antrim developer Seymour Sweeney ultimately forced him to resign his position as a Junior Minister.

He believes his son was unfairly treated and has proved just how good a politician he is after retaking a seat on the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Controversy also focused on the efforts of the First and Deputy First Ministers to agree the make-up of a new Victims' Commission for Northern Ireland.

However, Paisley is confident that the vast majority of people who suffered through the Troubles have been supportive of the efforts to deal with the issue.

"It has been difficult," he said.

"You must recognise that if you had your father shot you would feel sore.

"But the best support I have had in what I have done has been from people who suffered more than anyone else.

"There was a fella yapping at a meeting I was at and he says: 'who did you lose?', says I: 'nobody', but I said I have a man that came to me in a wheelchair with both his legs off and he says 'Ian don't let us down, we need peace in this country and if it cost my two legs to help you bring it then I'm glad'.

"That's the spirit and that spirit will not be quenched out by anybody and I believe we will see a development and a good development."

It's the spirit, not just of those who lost loved ones, but of all the people in Northern Ireland, that makes him most optimistic for the future.

He says in years past if anyone had ever suggested he would ever be given a warm welcome in the republican heartland of County Cork or that he would have been greeted by the Irish Prime Minister on the Battle of the Boyne Site he would have told them to check into an asylum.

Yet both have happened in what has been an extraordinary 12 months in Northern Ireland.

He may not shake hands with the Deputy First Minister in the coming days but he will at least take some fond memories of their time in office together.

And one occasion in particular, when the former IRA leader posed for a photo-shoot hitting a drum usually played on the Protestant 12th of July commemorations, proved to him just how far his country has moved on.

"We had the Deputy with a Lambeg drum on him, beating it in the big hall, I mean you couldn't get anything better than that," he said.

"There has been a real coming together (in Northern Ireland), we've been able to look over the wall, we haven't the wall down yet, but it will come down, it will come down."