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Last Updated: Monday, 6 December, 2004, 15:33 GMT
Profile: Ian Paisley

By Martina Purdy
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

A few years ago, Ian Paisley told the BBC journalist Peter Taylor that he would not be changing.

"I'll go to the grave with the convictions I have," said the DUP leader, a dominant, and often controversial, personality in Northern Ireland politics for more than three decades.

These words are being examined more carefully these days, as Ian Paisley, aged 78, stands between his uncompromising past, and a new future.

He is famous for saying no, famous for saying "never, never, never" and famous for not giving an inch to any of his enemies.

Ian Paisley addressing supporters in 1974
And as leader of both the Democratic Unionist Party and the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church, Mr Paisley has mixed politics and religion with an uncompromising zeal.

It was his passionate opposition to Irish republicanism that launched him on the political scene.

In 1964, he demanded an Irish tricolour be removed from Divis Street in west Belfast. When the RUC removed it, it led to rioting.

The Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, then a young man, remembers the incident as shaping his political development.

Mr Paisley has blocked power-sharing with moderate nationalists for years, most markedly in 1974, when he supported a strike involving loyalist paramilitaries to wreck Sunningdale. The Ulster Unionist leader who headed the failed Sunningdale power-sharing Executive, Brian Faulkner attacked Mr Paisley as the "demon doctor".

His doctorate is an honorary one, bestowed by the Bob Jones University, in South Carolina but he likes to use the title.

He is also quite capable of verbal combat with his critics and his political enemies.

The Rev Ian Paisley
1926: Born Armagh, NI
1946: Ordained
1951: Founded Free Presbyterian Church
1974: Entered Parliament
1979: European Parliament
1998 NI Assembly

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

In 1981, he appeared on a hillside in the dead of night with 500 men brandishing firearms licences and later had a brief dalliance with Ulster Resistance.

With the peace process came attempts by loyalist paramilitaries to organise politically - and challenge the DUP. But neither the Progressive Unionist Party nor Ulster Democratic Party has made much impact electorally.

When the loyalist paramilitaries supported the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Mr Paisley found himself verbally abused by members of the UDA and UVF.

Back then, Ian Paisley seemed to have been defeated. He suffered the humiliation of seeing a majority of unionists, however slim, embrace a deal he had vowed to wreck.

That may have been Ian Paisley's epiphany - a moment of truth, that the landscape demanded a new brand of unionism, tough but compromising.

Despite his hardline stance over Sunningdale, his views have been evolving for years. As the Troubles drew to a close, the DUP seemed willing to accommodate constitutional nationalists in power-sharing.

Ian Paisley
Mr Paisley's party topped the poll in assembly election

Failure to fully implement the 1998 deal has allowed the DUP to make a comeback - winning the lion's share of the seats in the 2003 assembly poll.

He takes his new-found role as the dominant leader of unionism extremely seriously. He gave up his job as an MEP.

Now, he stands in Downing Street not saying no - but maybe. He has even said that if there was power-sharing with Sinn Fein, he would have a lot to swallow. Those are the words of a man who is clearly thinking about the notion.

While his old enemies in the republican movement have changed - and grown politically stronger - the DUP leader is keeping observers guessing as to whether he too can change.

Is he going to remain an ever-fixed hardliner or is he going to leave historians with the image of a peace-maker?

The latter is increasingly viewed as plausible.

It's possible his hardline stance all these years was merely a tool to win power. But it's also possible that it's the change in circumstances that is leading to a changed Paisley.

How can he justify saying no if there is a chance to get rid of the IRA? Mr Paisley may know that the deal will eventually be done and prefer to do it himself rather than leave it to his lieutenants, Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds.

Despite his apparent conversion to moderate language, there are still flashes of the firebrand Paisley. He still condemns the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church.

Mr Paisley has insisted that while he is opposed to the Catholic Church, he has nothing against individual Catholics. This distinction is often lost on his critics, who dismiss him as a bigot.

Ian Paisley
Mr Paisley takes his role as dominant leader of unionism very seriously

They point to his behaviour this summer. After recovering from an illness, and confessing he had walked in "death's shadow" he attacked journalists who wrote about his health as "Romanists".

One critic said accepting the deal would be the biggest U-turn in the history of the island.

But Mr Paisley will have some gains to show for the move: the IRA transformed into an "old boys' association", and he First Minister at Stormont, lauded as a statesman.

Despite strong opposition to the agreement in 1998, there are signs his followers will tolerate the U-turn. One young Lagan Valley DUP member declared: "When Dr Paisley says jump, I say how high? Whatever he says goes."

Famously, he branded then Ulster Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux (now Lord Molyneaux) a Judas over his budding relationship with Dublin. More infamously, he threw snowballs in 1965 at then Irish Prime Minister Sean Lemass when he came to Stormont.

Yet Paisley boldly and unblushing went to Leinster House to meet the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, for the first time in the autumn of 2004 and talks of friendly relations.

He has learned to say maybe - but will he learn to say yes?






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