‘Dad gave me a big wink during my maiden speech as MP’

The DUP’s Ian Paisley tells JOANNE SAVAGE about being awed by his father’s oratory, falling in love on an ice rink, and why he thinks respect for difference in Northern Ireland is vital

By Joanne Savage
Saturday, 5th June 2021, 12:54 pm
Ian Paisley has been an MP at Westminster since 2010.
Ian Paisley has been an MP at Westminster since 2010.

Born in Belfast in 1966, Ian Paisley is the youngest child of the Free Presbyterian preacher and charismatic DUP leader who eventually shared power with Martin McGuinness when they laughed so much at Stormont photocalls they became known as the ‘chuckle brothers’.

Today, Mr Paisley, 54, an MP at Westminster since 2010, feels that the clear rapprochement between his father and the late Mr McGuinness was a true “example of leadership in action.

“I mean if they could get along as well as they did in spite of their polarised politics, why shouldn’t the rest of the community be able to follow suit?

Paisley addresses the media after Poots is ratified as DUP leader

“When my father decided to share power with McGuinness it was a huge testimony of how far Northern Ireland had come from the darkest days of the Troubles to a new dispensation.”

You would imagine that the late Lord Bannside would have been something of a strict, perhaps even fearsome patriarch with his five children, but in fact Ian insists that he was not like that at all.

“We were more than the best of friends, we were confidantes, and he knew how to have a laugh,” said Ian.“He never once told me off for not having my homework done. He taught us all to take personal responsibility and get on with things.”

Ian grew up with his twin brother Kyle (“he’s the handsome one and the only person who has known me longer than my mother”) and sisters Sharon, Rhonda and Cherith in a house in east Belfast’s Cyprus Avenue (made famous by Van the Man who Ian, being mad into jazz and blues , adores as a “genius of an artist whatever his foibles””).

Ian with wife Fiona and children Emily, Lucy, Thomas and Matthew

It was by all accounts a happy childhood, going to the beach at Portrush to build sandcastles or splashing about in the lapping waves. He would also attend his father’s church where he would sit rapt at the spectacle of his incantatory oratorical ability.

“When I would watch him preaching in church or giving political speeches it was always like watching a heavy weight boxer entering the ring. He could hold a congregation or an audience completely in the palm of his hand and his oratory was a very physical thing that he put so much energy and passion into.I look around at pale imitations today and think ‘Nah, that’s not the kind of brilliance that my father had at all.”

Ian attended Strandtown Primary where he was generally a diligent pupil although he did once get in trouble when, finding that there were no desks, he was made to sit at the piano and was told off for kicking the pedal at his feet.

“I loved the banter at school, but to say they were the happiest of my life, I wouldn’t say so,” Ian continued.

The Rev Ian Paisley with junior and his twin Kyle aged three in 1969

“I believe each day in life should be cherished. My catechism taught me that man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. I take that as a very practical lesson that you should enjoy every day of your life.”

After attending secondary school at Shaftesbury House College and sixth form in Methody, he read modern history and Irish politics at Queen’s University Belfast.

However, he was unable to attain his postgraduate qualification until he revised his dissertation on the role of women in Irish society and a biography of a woman called Dehra Parker who was one of the first Northern Ireland health ministers and the grandmother of the future Prime Minister James Chichester-Clarke.

“It was 7,000-8,000 words over,” he recalls. “I felt it was bloody brilliant. I put so much work into it I didn’t want to self-edit so they wouldn’t let me graduate until I cut it back. In the end I did and I got a very good mark.”

Was he wild as a student as most of us are?

“No comment!” he quips and then adds diplomatically: “I enjoyed myself and had no inhibitions and nobody could have accused me of being strait-laced. I didn’t shove white powder up my nose or drink too much.”

On leaving academia he began working as a political researcher and aide for his father, then was a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont from 1998 until his election to Westminster.

One of the proudest moments of Ian’s life was giving his maiden speech in the chamber.

“Being elected as an MP had been an ambition since childhood and when I was elected in 2010 it was an amazing moment that I had worked very hard for.

“I remember when I first stood up to speak, the pressure was on, because my mum and dad came in and sat watching me in the gallery. I always remember my dad gave me this big wink half-way through my speech. That was a special moment.”

Ian says he was drawn to politics because he wanted to help people, and still gets a kick and buzz when constituents come to him with a problem that he is able to solve:

“It is a privilege to be able to do the job I do and I never forget that,” Ian continued.

If he had a magic wand and could change one thing in Northern Ireland he says it would be about making people respect and understand difference, “that difference is not a threat to your identity, we can be different but we have to find the common ground and try to understand each other in order to help make this place as functional and successful as possible. Respect for our differences and unity of purpose is essential.”

‘Of course I can do a figure of eight on the ice’

Ian is obviously funny, eloquent and good craic, but people might be surprised to know the mischievous way in which he wooed his now wife Fiona. They have been together 31 years and have four children, Emily, Lucy, Thomas and Matthew.

“I was doing a Saturday job at the Dundonald Ice Bowl, skating around and helping people when they fell over, and obviously, yes, I can do a figure of eight. When I saw Fiona for the first time on the ice ink I thought she looked lovely and if she fell over I was determined to pick her up. So, I made sure she fell over.

“I think the secret of longevity in a marriage is finding someone you can really annoy for the rest of your life, but in that brilliant, funny way.”

Today he loves collecting fountain pens (‘I love the scratchy sounds they make on paper’), family picnics along picturesque shoreliines on the north coast and riding full-throttle on his motorbike with the wind in his hair.

‘Why I think Poots is the man for the moment and NI protocol must go’

With the DUP in turmoil at the moment following the brutally swift removal of Arlene Foster as First Minister and Party Leader, Paisley believes that the internal laundry of the DUP is not something people are really interested in and remains tight-lipped about the personal politics behind her deposition.

Does he believe Edwin Poots is the man to unite a fractured DUP, secure the union, remove the NI Protocol which has proven so offensive to unionists and loyalists, and emerge victorious in what Poots unfortunately described as a “Titanic election struggle” ahead in 2022? Let’s hope it does not reach an end akin to the dreadful fate of the Belfast-made liner.

“Edwin is the man for the moment and I think we all need to swing in behind him. He says what he thinks, is direct, honest and open, and I think he also has a very good capacity to listen to people. I think they are good hallmarks for a leader. You know, I’m on the inside of this and I think the internal laundry of the DUP should remain there. I have no problem with Arlene on a personal level but anyone who loses the confidence of so many in their party has to leave the office of First Minister.”

I put it to him that any ultra-right movement of the DUP is likely to lead liberal unionists to look elsewhere, with the UUP and Alliance becoming arguably more attractive to progressives. His view is that liberals may not agree with all of the DUP’s policies but that they are the “only party who believe in the union, who are committed to maintaining the union and we get things gone.”

He agrees that losing the DUP leadership was immensely painful for his father: “He was heartbroken. But they were different circumstances. I think he felt it was because he was older but I think older people bring so much invaluable wisdom to the table. I think my father felt that he had more to give to the party, but it was not to be.”

Like the majority of unionist politicians he is vehemently opposed to the NI protocol which he sees as undermining Northern Ireland’s economic potential. But is it a real threat to our constitutional position as part of the UK and not simply a necessary bureaucratic arrangement now unavoidable because the UK voted for Brexit? “Nobody can take our Britishness away from us, we are as British as we want to be, but the protocol is madness because around 70 per cent of the trade we do is with the UK and the border down the Irish sea ludicrously means inordinate checks on all kinds of things.

”Unionists and loyalists are angry. As Lord Frost has said, the protocol is unsustainable.”

Q&A: ‘My faith is steadfast as a rock and a source of immense strength’

Who makes you laugh the most?

Probably my kids, Emily, Lucy, Thomas and Matthew. They take the mickey out of me all the time.

They always burst my bubble. ‘Look at the state of dad today?’ They remind me that actually, I’m not important, I’m just dad.

Your ideal way to spend a day outside of lockdown restrictions?

Just chilling either at the beach or riding my motorbike.

What kind of music do you enjoy?

I love jazz and blues and my favourite musician who I’ve had the honour of meeting quite a few times is Van Morrison. The first record I bought was The Boomtown Rats and I got to meet Bob Geldof with my father in 2012. He and my dad got on like a house on fire frankly.

Can you describe yourself in three words?

Compassionate, driven and humorous.

What is your vice?

The son of the manse has no vices! I’m pure as the driven snow. I don’t over indulge in anything. Maybe my biggest vice is that I am something of a bore.

Biggest challenge you have faced?

Dealing with the loss of relatives. I remember when my dad died and somebody said that ‘This is the last step to adulthood, losing one of your parents’.

Your favourite book?

The Psalms are inspiring and challenging. To relax, I’d go for Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming the man who gave us James Bond.

Proudest moments?

My children’s births, my two daughters’ marriages (I know I don’t look old enough, thank you) and getting elected as an MP in 2010.

Favourite Film?

Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a Bond film, and Layer Cake, which is about the criminal underworld.

If you could invite anyone from history to an ideal dinner party who would you bring?

Adam and Eve to ask them why they wanted to eat the apple of forbidden knowledge. Then, Winston Churchill, a raconteur, a man who has seen everything, he’d keep the party going. Then my dad, although then I would have to bring my mother too.

What would you serve them?

Some good Ulster beef and maybe some nice fish from Kilkeel. And to drink, something local like Bushmills. Or lemonade.

Love is...forever

The meaning of life is...To enjoy life forever.

How sustained are you by your Christian faith in your personal and political life?

I think as you get older you more and more realise the importance of faith and you try to jettison all the stupid stuff that really doesn’t matter. You realise that everything else is transient compared to what is eternal. I’ve never doubted the existence of God and it is a steadfast rock and a source of great comfort.