Northern Ireland

Granny's eggs and the perils of reporting Ian Paisley

Ian Paisley addressing and Orange Order demonstration in Belfast in 1970. Image copyright PA
Image caption Covering an event addressed by Ian Paisley meant planning an escape route

Ian Paisley first came into my life when I was eight, during his campaign to oust the then prime minister at Stormont, Captain Terence O'Neill.

A poster appeared on our primary school notice-board with the catchy slogan Keep O'Neill at the Wheel.

As much of my life revolved around Dinky toys at the time I asked at the tea-table who O'Neill was and what did he drive?

I was given the analogy of government, a bus and a driver and that someone else wanted a turn at steering.

"Who is that?" I asked.

"Well it's a minister called Ian Paisley and he thinks he's right about people wanting to take over the country," replied mum.

"So is he right?" I fired back, at which point the wiser counsel of my father intervened: "Son, just eat your egg and soldiers."

Resentment

This may or may not have planted the seeds of inquiry that led me to journalism but it was in that role I regularly encountered the would-be bus driver.

Covering events in the 1980s at which Ian Paisley was the star was always one to look forward to as it usually ensured you made the bulletin.

However, they were also events from which you always pre-planned your escape route.

While the media made him famous around the world for his larger than life outbursts, reporters were far from immune from his ire and we were often used as pawns in his power game on the streets.

This lay in the resentment of the media by his supporters.

They felt the media was responsible for dispelling the myth that pre-1968 Northern Ireland was what they termed "a great wee country".

Reporters were seen as having painted unionists, and Paisleyites in particular, in an unfavourable light and the "gentlemen of the press", as Ian Paisley always called us, were seldom allowed to forget it.

At rallies, he would hold crowds of hundreds enthralled as he spoke about the forces threatening their way of life.

Top of the list was the IRA, next the British government because, he said, it was failing to combat the IRA, and finally the media for what he called a biased anti-Protestant stance.

Image caption Ian Paisley railed against the IRA, the government and the media but the media were the only targets present

The problem was that at such rallies no representatives of the first two organisations were present, but we were, and the anger built up by the rhetoric was often vented in our direction both verbally and physically.

He was the key speaker at Carson Trail rallies, which involved hundreds of masked men in paramilitary uniforms parading before him.

At these you had to get close enough to get the recording but do it while not looking like a reporter such was the concern about what he might say.

There was no telling when these unsettling witch-hunts would arise.

One 12 July morning I had been sent to cover the Independent Orange Order's Battle of the Boyne commemoration at Rasharkin, County Antrim.

Cover blown

The sun was shining and a colleague from the Irish Times and I took position sitting on a flatbed close to the platform where Mr Paisley was to speak.

As we swung our legs I noticed my colleague was sporting brown brogues but no socks - something I put down to hang-over indecision rather than a sartorial statement.

On his way to the podium, Paisley walked by us, nodded and smiled, and we reciprocated. All seemed relaxed until right in the middle of his speech, Paisley inserted a section about the economy in the Republic of Ireland.

"Why", he said, "Would anyone want to join that banana republic? They're a joke. I mean, even today, if you look over there (now pointing at us) you'll see one of my Papish friends from the press. He works for the richest newspaper in Dublin, and still they can't pay him enough to buy socks!"

Cover blown, on at least two fronts, my colleague made off before the speech ended.

Even RUC officers were not immune from the Jekyll and Hyde treatment normally preserved for reporters.

On a dark night in 1986 the then assembly had collapsed and Paisley was refusing to leave the building.

After hours hanging around, the police "assisted" him from the building in a manner that was much like a push for the line at Ravenhill.

When they got him out Paisley warned the RUC men not to come looking for him when their homes were attacked, a statement captured on my cassette recorder.

Some months later I reminded him of this as we did an interview about a policeman's murder by the IRA and he flatly denied saying it.

"You're wrong in what you heard, I never said such a thing," he bellowed.

In this way he put you on the back foot, having that 100% self-assuredness despite your knowledge you had it on tape. Throughout his career that was consistently Paisley's position - that he was never wrong and it was the reporter's memory at fault.

Bellowed

However, there was an occasion when I managed to silence him with someone else's recollection - my granny's.

I was in his office at Stormont and he asked what part of the country I was from.

I told him, Belfast, but added that my granny was from somewhere he knew well, a farm in the Braid valley.

"Are you from McCrory stock," he smiled.

"Yes" I replied, "And my granny well remembers you walking out to get eggs from the farm."

"Yes, yes," he said.

I followed up with a smile to match his: "And she also says she always knew you had two or three extra in your pockets too."

He bellowed, but this time with laughter. For once, he had decided it was not going to be wise to make a challenge especially when the source was as unimpeachable as Granny McCrory.