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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April, 2005, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
Profile: Ian Paisley
Martina Purdy
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.

Ian Paisley MP leader of the Democratic Unionist Party
Ian Paisley is one of the most controversial of NI's political leaders

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.

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.

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

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.

Mr Paisley vigorously opposed the Good Friday Agreement

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.

There can be no power sharing with IRA/Sinn Fein either before or after an election
Ian Paisley
DUP leader

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.

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.

He found himself standing in Downing Street not saying no - but maybe.

Before the last failed attempt at a power-sharing deal with Sinn Fein last December - which collapsed over demands for photographic evidence of decommissioning - he seemed to be contemplating the once-unthinkable.

He told a reporter that if there was a deal with Sinn Fein he would have to bite his lip and swallow a lot.

The bar for Sinn Fein is expected to be higher still before power-sharing can return in light of allegations that the IRA robbed the Northern Bank.

His latest statement as the election looms appears to rule out any post-election deal with republicans.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Prime Minister Tony Blair, with whom Mr Paisley has had stormy relations
Relations between Mr Paisley with the Irish and British governments have improved

Dr Paisley said: "There can be no power-sharing with IRA/Sinn Fein either before or after an election.

"They have forever forfeited their right to any such power-sharing place. Democracy and liberty demands that they be excluded."

In the past Mr Paisley said if the IRA removed itself from the equation and disbanded, Sinn Fein could be included in power-sharing.

The question remains if that offer is still on the table? Forever is a long time - as is never - once a favoured expression of the DUP leader.

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

The jury is still out.

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. On the other hand he wants to protect his legacy.

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.

'Friendly relations'

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.

They point to his behaviour last summer. After recovering from an illness, he referred to journalists who wrote about his health as "Romanists". He later confessed to having walked in death's shadow.

Mr Paisley was either very lucky or very shrewd that he did not do the deal last year.

How would it have looked if he had agreed terms with republicans only to have the bank raid carried out days later - with the IRA getting the blame for this robbery.

Was it his distrust of republicans and fear of being in hock to them before an election which prompted what he knew would be a deal-breaker - his demand for photographic evidence of decommissioning.

Any deal with Sinn Fein in the short-term would most likely be unsellable, even for a leader whose followers are extemely loyal.

One young Lagan Valley DUP member declared on Radio Ulster: "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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