The Rev Ian Paisley has detonated a political bombshell by accusing Peter Robinson, his long-time deputy and successor as Northern Ireland’s First Minister, of involvement in a plot of depose him.
Mr Paisley and his wife Eileen both levelled extraordinarily caustic criticisms against the leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Free Presbyterian Church, both of which he founded and led for half a century.
In a BBC documentary to be broadcast tonight, Mrs Paisley declared: “They assassinated him by their words and by their deeds – they treated him shamefully.”
Her husband related that when Tony Blair confided in him in Downing Street that he was about to become a Catholic, he bluntly told the Prime Minister: “You’re a fool.”
Although DUP figures have suggested Mr Paisley’s memory may be at fault, his trenchant criticisms are causing sizeable waves in a party noted for its long tradition of keeping disputes under wraps. Because he will be aged 90 in two years’ time, and since he has been in hospital several times with serious conditions, it had been assumed that his capacity to spring surprises was over.
But his allegations, apparently aimed at Mr Robinson, that “there was a beast here who was prepared to go forward to the destruction of the party”, are extreme. The shock is almost approaching that generated in 2007 when he switched from a lifetime of opposing Sinn Fein to entering government with republicans in an administration headed by himself and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness.
He lasted just over a year as First Minister before stepping down from both that post and as moderator for life of the Free Presbyterian church.
Mrs Paisley said of his removal: “I know he was heartbroken and I believe it was the heartbreak that took the toll on his health.”
She said that for four days he was “just hovering between life and death,” with the family discussing funeral arrangements.
Since he stepped down as head of the church he founded, no member of his family has entered his Martyrs Memorial church, Mr Paisley revealed. “I think they’re better not going because they would not be happy. You do not go to a church to sit on nails,” he said.
At the time of his departure in 2008, Mr Paisley gave no public sign that he had been forced out against his will, and made no criticisms of either his party or his church. He now says this is because he did not wish to harm them. But the strength and sustained ferocity of his criticisms have blown away the image of both as happily united families.
A DUP statement said the party was sad to see Mr Paisley “harm his own legacy.” It said that in his later years as party leader “many of his colleagues shielded his frailty from public view to avoid embarrassment” at a time when his ability to perform his duties was seriously diminished and causing widespread concern. It added that those people “are hurt by untrue and bitter comments.”
Mr Paisley also related a conversation with Mr Blair in 2007 after a private meeting.
“As we were walking down the stairs he stopped, he looked back at me and he said, ‘Ian, there is something I need to tell you. When the hands of that clock’ – and he pointed to a big clock that was on the wall, ‘When the hands of that clock, when they come to eight o’clock I will be a Roman Catholic’. And he said ‘I didn’t want you to leave without telling you, I’d rather tell you myself.’ And I said ‘You are a fool’ and I walked on.”
He said he had often spoken of religion with Mr Blair, saying the Prime Minister’s Donegal grandmother was “a very strong supporter of mine”.
Last night a DUP statement said the party was sad to see Mr Paisley “harm his own legacy.” It said that in his later years as party leader “many of his colleagues shielded his frailty from public view to avoid embarrassment”a at a time when his ability to perform his duties was seriously diminished and causing widespread concern. It added that those people “are hurt by untrue and bitter comments.”