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Friday, 29 June, 2001, 17:11 GMT 18:11 UK
Ian Paisley: DUP leader
Ian Paisley addressing supporters in 1974
Ian Paisley addressing supporters in 1974
In any survey about Ian Paisley, the one column left blank would be headed: Don't know.

There is no public ambivalence about the Democratic Unionist Party leader and Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church. People in Northern Ireland either love him or hate him.

The Rev Ian Paisley
1926: Born, Armagh, NI
1946: Ordained
1951: Founded Free Presbyterian Church
1974: Entered Parliament
1979: European Parliament
1998: NI Assembly
He has been a colossus on the political stage in the Province since his first interventions in the mid-1960s.

Among these was the protest he organised about the lowering of the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall as a mark of respect over the death of the Pope.

His physical presence and commanding voice are ever-present and, at the age of 74, he says he has no intention of retiring.

His mixture of politics and religion has inspired loyalty from his supporters and loathing from his detractors though the politics has always been secondary to the faith.

But it is also the politics that has seen him take centre stage once more in the battle with the Ulster Unionists after his party succeeded in a devastating attack on its opponent in the 2001 general election.

Christian fundamentalist

This son of a baptist minister gave his first sermon when he was just 16.

Ian Paisley speaks to journalists at Stormont
Enemies: Paisley refuses to sit down with Sinn Fein
He spent the next 20 years working within religious life before becoming involved in politics, setting up the Free Presbyterian Church in 1951 along the way.

He has forged links with Christian fundamentalists across the world, particularly in the Bible Belt of the United States, where he has a close friend in republican Senator Jesse Helms.

Ian Paisley has stood in the way of every political initiative to bring powersharing to Northern Ireland for the past 30 years.

He has railed against what he considers to be the evils of Irish nationalism and republicanism throughout that period - but has also fought a long-running feud with the Ulster Unionist Party.

Every UUP leader in the last three decades has been described by Dr Paisley as either a traitor or a Judas determined to sell Northern Ireland into a united Ireland, though at one point he had a working relationship with David Trimble's predecessor James (now Lord) Molyneaux.

Akin to death

In every European election he routinely tops the poll and on that basis describes himself as the most popular politician in the country.

Ian Paisley with David Trimble at the Cenotaph
Dr Paisley has accused David Trimble of betraying unionists
Many unionists would regard a united Ireland as tantamount to the death of their community - and Paisley has long portrayed himself and his party as the community's "insurance vote".

"People don't expect to die tomorrow," said one Paisley confidante, "but they do take out insurance, don't they?"

While the DUP leader has condemned violence, republican and loyalist, he has been criticised for his own involvement with shadowy groups.

In 1981, he appeared on a hillside in the dead of night with 500 men brandishing firearms licenses and later had a brief dalliance with Ulster Resistance - both of which had more than a whiff of paramilitary sulphur about them

Earlier in the Troubles, the Scarman Tribunal into the violence of 1969 gave its own verdict on his role: "While his speeches and writings must have been one of the many factors increasing tension 1969, he neither plotted nor organised the disorders there is no evidence that he was a party to any of the acts of violence."

Bigotry accusation denied

Dr Paisley insists that while he is opposed to the Roman Catholic Church and all its workings he has nothing against individual Catholics.

Ian Paisley leaves a polling station
Ian Paisley describes himself as the most popular politician in NI
This distinction is, however, often lost on some of his supporters - and Catholics in Northern Ireland regard him as a bigot.

In recent years he has denied reports of ill health and insists he will continue as leader of both the DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church until, as he put it, "I am carried out."

That fervour for political campaigning which at times is almost indistinguishable from some form of religious mission invigorates him and, politically, he remains one of the best canvassers ever seen in British politics.

Interviewed by Peter Taylor for his BBC series and book, Loyalists, Mr Paisley rejected all criticism that had ever been levelled against him, everything from being the immovable face of unionism to the mouthpiece of sectarianism.

"All I can say is that I'll not be changing," he said. "I will go to the grave with the convictions I have.

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