Page last updated at 08:32 GMT, Thursday, 1 February 2007

Profile: Ian Paisley

Martina Purdy
By Martina Purdy
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

Ian Paisley was once famous for saying no. Now he's famous for not saying it.

Indeed, the DUP leader is no longer the most predictable of politicians when it comes to political compromise with his traditional enemies.

Ian Paisley
Ian Paisley, aged 80, could lead his party into power-sharing

At the age of 80 he is showing clear signs he wants to settle into power-sharing rather than retirement.

The politician who famously declared "never, never, never" in 1986 is no longer setting his face against change.

Never, in fact has become whenever. That is, whenever Sinn Fein meets its promises on policing, he'll share power.

Mr Paisley has moved from not an inch, to inch by inch, to a giant leap at St Andrew's when he declared his willingness to give the deal a fair wind.

His speech in October 2006, made on his 50th wedding anniversary, recalled the troubled past and looked forward to a bright future.

Ian Paisley's declaration since that his party "will not be found wanting" if republicans, in his words, "complete the transition to democracy and the rule of law", has been welcomed by pro-agreement politicians but it has rocked sections of his party and his traditional supporters.

Just 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.

And just last July, at a Twelfth demonstration in Ballycastle, the DUP leader seemed set to end his days as the great no-man when he told cheering supporters that "IRA/Sinn Fein" would never get into a power-sharing government.

Now aged 80, this often controversial personality is poised to lead his party into a power-sharing coalition with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness

He used the words "over our dead bodies."

It seems the explanation offered by other party members that Mr Paisley was referring to "IRA/Sinn Fein" and not Sinn Fein was on the mark.

Now Mr Paisley, an often controversial personality, is poised to lead his party into a power-sharing coalition with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness.

He has the benefit of not having a Paisley-type figure to oppose him, although there is evidence he will have to overcome considerable resistance within his own party - and he may lose long-time supporters on his journey to Stormont.

Having seen off every unionist leader since Terence O'Neill, Ian Paisley now has the first minister's job within his grasp.

The question he is faced with is whether or not he can muster sufficient support within unionism and within his party to achieve it.

In making his move, he must also consider the impact of his move in the Free Presbyterian Church, elements of which are appalled by the St Andrew's Agreement.

The Rev Ian Paisley
1926: Born Armagh, NI
1946: Ordained
1951: Founded Free Presbyterian Church
1974: Entered Parliament
1979: European Parliament
2004 stepped down as MEP
1998 NI Assembly

Ian Paisley's shift towards accommodation has come late - and in fits and starts after decades of firebrand attacks on both Catholicism and Irish republicanism.

Having condemned the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church as the "whore of Babylon", Ian Paisley astounded his critics by meeting the Irish Catholic Primate Sean Brady at Stormont in October 2006.

He has also U-turned on his attitude to Dublin, having built his career on attacking the Irish Republic and nationalism.

Famously, he once branded then Ulster Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux (now Lord Molyneaux) as 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 Mr Paisley - bold and unblushing - went to Leinster House to meet the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, for the first time in the autumn of 2004 and talked of "friendly relations".

What a contrast this was with 1964, when Mr Paisley demanded an Irish tricolour be removed from Divis Street in west Belfast. When the RUC removed it, it led to rioting.

Ian Paisley at a press conference on 31 May 1983
Ian Paisley at a press conference on 31 May 1983

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

Now the inevitable outcome of the political negotiations is that Ian Paisley will be meeting the Sinn Fein leader for a historic meeting. It seems to be a matter of when, not if.

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.

'Shadowy groups'

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

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 the now disbanded Ulster Democratic Party 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 hard-line 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
Ian Paisley electioneering in Northern Ireland in October 1974

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

In the months after this election, Ian Paisley struggled with ill-health and despite party denials he was gravely ill, admitted in 2004 that he had "walked in death's shadow".

While still recovering from his illness, Mr Paisley travelled to Leed's Castle to take part in multi-party negotiations, involving Sinn Fein.

He maintained his distance, however, insisting he was only negotiating with the British government.

He gave up his job as an MEP to concentrate on the political talks - making way for his successor Jim Allister, who is a politician very much in the mould of the traditional DUP.

Political analysts believe Mr Paisley will have a job persuading Mr Allister to acquiesce in power-sharing by March, as the MEP has already criticised this timeframe as "insufficient" to test the IRA.

And 12 members of the party's assembly team, including four MPs, issued a signed statement on 24 November 2006 insisting their party leader's remarks in the assembly that day must not be interpreted as a nomination as first minister.

This move was seen as evidence of tensions in the party over the strategy.

Following St Andrews, it now appears that Mr Paisley would like to be first minister before he retires, even if the price of that is Martin McGuinness as partner

Mr Paisley has 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 has clearly thought about the notion.

While his old enemies in the republican movement have changed - and grown politically stronger - the DUP leader is no longer keeping observers guessing as to whether he too can change.

That seems obvious now. The question is can his party? And can Ian Paisley wield the kind of influence that has become legend in DUP circles?

It's possible his hard-line 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.

First minister

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.

There was a time when some thought Ian Paisley with nine MPs at Westminster to the Ulster Unionist Party's one, would have happily settled for this status.

Certainly it has brought him privileges and enabled him to nominate his wife, Eileen Paisley, for a peerage.

She is now Baroness Paisley of St George. The power couple happily accepted a wooden bowl, made from a tree at the Battle of the Boyne site, from Taoiseach Bertie Ahern at the St Andrews talks, to mark their golden wedding anniversary.

Following St Andrews, it now appears that Mr Paisley would like to be first minister before he retires, even if the price of that is Martin McGuinness as partner.

If he remains undisputed unionist leader, Mr Paisley may be free to cut a deal. The danger for the DUP leader is that, like David Trimble, he fails to deliver and in the process splits his party.

Mr Paisley seems self-evident he does not have the time any longer for slow change.



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