12 Sep 2014

Ian Paisley, one bride, and four political enemies

Any reporter of my generation came to know Ian Paisley perhaps a little better than we wanted to.

And yet beyond the rhetoric, the bombast and what some called the bigotry, he actually had remarkable charm in private – as I discovered one Thursday night at Heathrow airport.

It was the mid-1970s. Relations between Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland were at their worst.

There were some 10 NI MPs trying to fly to Belfast. Aldegrove airport had been closed by fog. BA told me that if we were quick, we could get on the shuttle to Glasgow, taxi across to the station and race to Stranraer, where we could take the overnight boat for Larne.

Ian Paisley

Somehow, as the lone non-MP trying to make the same flight, I was deputed. Just as I was herding the MPs to the plane, I ran into a weeping bride bearing two large suitcases. She was due to get married the next morning.

“She can come with us!” cried Paisley. So she did.

On the flight deck, the pilot put me through to book several taxis to get us to the station. Then I called the station, and the stationmaster promised to hold the train for us.

The pilot threw the plane down onto the tarmac at Glasgow. The taxis were there. Just as we were getting into them, the bride wept again. Her cases were still in the aircraft hold.

Paisley and I, being the tallest people available, clambered into the hold and got them out. We raced to the station in time to see the tail lights of the train disappearing. The stationmaster explained: “When the driver heard Paisley was among the MPs, he drove off early.”

I grabbed the taxis and loaded the MPs into them for the long journey across the lowlands. I suddenly realised that in my taxi was Paisley, the radical republican Frank Maguire, the unionist Jim Molyneaux, the SDLP leader Gerry Fitt, and of course the bride.

I’d got a clean sweep of the most bitter political enemies it was possible to assemble in so small a space. I feared the worst.

But within minutes they were sharing jokes about each other, they were lampooning each other, and they were telling stories out of school. The bride and I were mesmerised.

We made it to the ferry, and just as we parted Paisley said to the bride: “I’d like to come to your wedding tomorrow! Where is it?” “Oh… Our Lady of Lourdes in west Belfast,” she said.

Collapse of stout party. Paisley suddenly had an altogether more vital appointment – anywhere but in west Belfast.

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14 reader comments

  1. Eamonn says:

    Great anecdote John. I grew up in Dublin listening to Ian Paisley’s negative rhetoric so it was great to see him ‘soften’ in his later years. I’ve watched and admired your journalism for many years, and then a few weeks ago you cycled by me in your trademark socks near Smithfield market!

    1. jon snow says:

      You should have stopped me Eamonn!

  2. Dick Bourke says:

    John. That gave me a good laugh. These politicos were human as well as being politicians.

  3. Frances Mannion says:

    When my grandmother died, my cousin flew London to Belfast for the Catholic funeral. Upset and miserable sitting on the plane, saddened by the death, he found himself in the seat next to Ian Paisley.
    Ian offered to drive my cousin to the family bungalow an hour from the airport. My relative had transport arranged, so did not take up the offer. However, Ian would have done this kindness if the lift was needed. He was not all bad. Ian spoke to him during the flight about the death and was very decent.

  4. haran says:

    It made just realize that if such bitter enemies can eventually sort things out , by a large degree, then maybe it is possible in the middle east as well

  5. Sarah Hawkins says:

    I went to Queens University Belfast to study psychology (the perfect place!) and as an English Catholic, it was fun watching people decide whether I was good/bad, to-be-trusted or ‘does-not compute!’. At Uni, it was often the first time that many catholic and protestant students had ever met, as all the schools and neighbourhoods were segregated on opposite sides of towns. People divided into two groups, – those who took the opportunity to mix and those who kept to their own kind. Thankfully, those who chose to mix were the majority, and that is why the peace process went on to succeed I believe – Ian Paisley’s son was one of those people.

  6. Caoimhin O hUiginn says:

    Having read quite a bit on various conflicts and having worked within forensic psychotherapy for many years I never ceased to be unnerved by stories of public enemies cuddling up privately. Makes me cringe.

  7. Philip says:

    I met Ian Paisley in an official capacity several time sin the late 70s & early 80s. He was mild-mannered, cheery and intent on genuine negotiations. Admittedly this wasn’t about anything directly related to the political settlement in Northern Ireland, but it showed a wide gap between the public posturing and the man himself. It also suggested (not lest in retrospect) that he was a man who knew how to negotiate, with an acceptance than “no surrender” wasn’t a viable negotiating tactic.
    I’m not going to pretend that I found him particularly likeable. But he showed that whatever you think of people – even those who appear to be the most bigoted and intransigent can learn and adopt other ways. A lesson for how we adopt our tactics in dealing with similar types of people in similar situations, perhaps?
    Nevertheless, his passing marks the death of a man who showed he could learn and adapt and bring better lives for those around him.

  8. Nessa Kennedy says:

    Rev. Ian Paisley was a great man for Ulster. The people there will never have a spokesman for their beliefs ever like him again. He was also a man of God….a great preacher and teacher of God’s Word and his fellowship of believers at Martyrs Memorial Church in Belfast are now mourning their great leader.

  9. nick says:

    Fantastic commentry

  10. Warren says:

    my wife’s father was a catholic business man and was befriended by Ian Paisley snr who helped him with and passed him business. Ian Paisley jnr I met on the Nolan show is a very funny man indeed Stephen Nolan was practising his lines for the show and said “Coming up on tonight’s show we have a satanic band coming to Belfast” quickly Ian Paisley jnr turned to me and said “Yep, Willie McCrea” very funny and quick witted.

  11. James White says:

    Sad fact is that so many young educated liberal Protestants were so alienated by Paisley and his religio-political rantings that their first thought, on graduating, was to exit Northern Ireland for good. Hence the decline in the quality of unionist representation and acceptance of political arrangements and vetoes at Stormont that do not and cannot ever work.

    1. Warren says:

      Yes James this was the unfortunate “brain drain” with NI’s biggest export being intelligence

  12. Eddie Whyre says:

    Seriously Jon? Protestant and Catholic? Shame on you for perpetuating the myth.

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