A panel of unionist and loyalist politicians agreed that the best thing former First Minister Lord Bannside ever did during his political career was to say yes.
Lord Bannside, previously known as Ian Paisley, came to prominence as a firebrand preacher in the later 1960s, before getting involved with politics as one of the founders of the DUP in 1971. He vehemently opposed various power-sharing governments until, in 2007, he agreed to share power with Sinn Fein in the St Andrews Agreement.
DUP MLA Sammy Douglas, UUP MLA Michael Copeland, PUP councillor John Kyle and loyalist leader Jackie McDonald discussed this colourful political career at Westbourne Presbyterian Church on the Newtownards Road in Belfast.
The discussion followed a preview of the new play Paisley and Me – starring Give My Head Peace actor Dan Gordon and written by Islandmagee man Ron Hutchinson – which is due to open at the Marketplace Theatre in Armagh on October 26.
The chairman of the panel, BBC journalist Noel Thompson, asked each of the participants to outline their view of Lord Bannside.
One of the DUP’s newest MLAs, former east Belfast community worker Sammy Douglas, said, “he [Paisley] came good in the end”, but noted that “towards the end he lost huge support within the church and DUP for doing the deal”.
“Northern Ireland is in a far better place than it was,” he added.
Mr Douglas also pointed out that Lord Bannside got the biggest vote in Northern Ireland when he was elected as MEP in 1979, 1984, 1988 and 1999.
UUP MLA Michael Copeland said that when Lord Bannside said yes, “he ended 40 years of murder that should never have happened... it’s a pity it took so long”.
PUP councillor John Kyle said his first experience of Lord Bannside was after a little girl had been knocked down at Stormont and the political leader took control of the scene.
“He took control and got things organised,” he said.
“He said no for 30 years, I am just glad that in the end he said yes instead of no.”
While loyalist Jackie McDonald said that he initially “thought Paisley was great”, he later felt that he and other paramilitaries had been “used”.
He said he thought Lord Bannside saying yes to power sharing was “one of the best things he ever did”.
The gathering also heard pieces of writing by individuals describing their experiences of Lord Bannside shared by members of east Belfast-based group Political Awareness through Citizenship and History (PATCH).
One piece, written by a 70-year-old woman called Doris, evocatively described “the Big Man’s” powerful presence at a meeting at a gospel hall in Sandy Row, “all eyes riveted on the Doc”, before he had even uttered a word.
Another excerpt recalled the Protestant Telegraph being sold “undercover, cloak and dagger, delivering only to certain houses”, while another noted “Paisley brings down power sharing government, the next power sharing government will be with Sinn Fein murderers”.