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.
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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