If the extraordinary outburst of animosity against former colleagues in the DUP and Free Presbyterian Church from Ian and Eileen Paisley during their marathon BBC television interviews can be traced to any one particular moment it would probably be another television interview, this time on UTV, given by the then DUP leader and Free Presbyterian moderator in late April 2007.
With Paisley just a fortnight away from heading up the new Stormont power-sharing government with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as his deputy, he was asked how long he planned to stay on as First Minister. “I am pleased you asked me that question”, he replied. “I will serve the full four years. I will not be resigning.”
The interview set alarm bells ringing in both party and church.
In the DUP the prospect of having Ian Paisley around and running the show until 2011 was doubly unsettling. To begin with there was considerable doubt that Paisley was intellectually capable of doing the job for that long; his serious heart illness and a near death experience had left him a reduced figure and soon some of his performances as First Minister in the Assembly chamber would make that uncomfortably obvious.
But more troubling to younger DUP figures, the likes of Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds, was the unavoidable implication of that promise, or as they saw it, threat. If Ian Paisley Snr stayed around for another four years then he would have ample time to plan and plot his succession, and everyone knew who he would choose: his unpopular son Ian Paisley Jnr.
Faced with the very real prospect that they would themselves not only never get the chance to savour the ultimate political power but that they would also have to stand idly by and watch the erection of a Paisley dynasty, the DUP’s younger bloods opted to topple the crown.
Paisley’s UTV interview also disturbed the Free Presbyterian faithful, adding significantly to concerns about their moderator going into government with unrepentant terrorists, what the critics would call “an unequal yoke”. Paisley’s confident assertion that he would not be resigning as First Minister was a dog-whistle moment that smacked of arrogance; a true Christian response would have said: “If God is willing, I will not resign.” It spoke of deeper, growing doubts about Paisley within the rank and file.
Paisley had already disturbed the church with an editorial claim in the Free Presbyterian magazine ‘The Revivalist’ that he was God’s “specially anointed” leader. It was one thing for the rank and file to pronounce Ian Paisley as ‘God’s man’ as they and his political supporters had been proclaiming for decades; but it was another thing entirely if he did it.
And then Eileen stepped into the controversy with a column in the same issue of ‘The Revivalist’ attacking Free Presbyterian critics of her husband: “Like the Israelites of old treated Moses,” she wrote, “so they treat today’s God-anointed leader.” So both husband and wife were claiming that Ian Paisley was ‘God’s man’. It was too much for the Free Presbyterian rank and file.
With hearts in the pews hardening against the Free Presbyterian ‘moderator-for-life’ Paisley was facing a humiliating defeat at the annual meeting of the church’s Presbytery, its governing body, in September 2007, just five months or so since his UTV interview.
To avoid that, he agreed that in January 2008 he would stand down from the church he had founded 55 years earlier. Stepping down in this way would take the bad look off things. Two months later, in the face of a similar revolt by former colleagues and friends, he quit as DUP leader and First Minister. Within the space of a few short weeks, his extraordinary political and religious careers were over and an era had ended.
These extraordinary events serve to highlight two key aspects of Paisley’s twilight years. One was the growing influence of Eileen Paisley, or ‘Mammy’ as everyone calls her, an influence that blossomed after Ian Paisley’s illness. Sources close to the family say that it was Eileen who really persuaded her husband to share power with Sinn Fein and that Eileen was also the force behind the urge to create a Paisley dynasty, with Ian Jnr slated to follow Ian Snr.
To be sure there is an element of wishful thinking here amongst the Paisleyite faithful, a case of wanting to blame the king’s advisors rather than the king, but there is no doubt about the vituperative scorn directed at ‘Mammy’ during this time by Free Presbyterian and DUP critic alike. And if there is an element of ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’, about some of her remarks in Eamonn Mallie’s interviews with the couple then the explanation can also be found here.
The other is the deep underlying reason for the huge disquiet caused in Paisleyite circles by the “Chuckle Brothers” photo of a grinning Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness on the steps of Stormont. What the photo did was to provoke the most unsettling question of all in the minds of Paisley’s followers, a question that went to the heart of their doubts.
His one-time loyal disciple Clifford Smyth put it well: “I now believe” he told me six years ago, “that his only consideration was to get to the top of the heap and that he used religion and politics as a route to power”.
Long after Ian Paisley is dead historians will still be arguing about that.
Ed Moloney is author of ‘Paisley – From Demagogue To Democrat?’, published by Poolbeg Press