Northern Ireland

Ian Paisley: The Scottish question that angered the big man from Ballymena

Ian Paisley objects to Gareth Gordon's question at an Edinburgh press conference in 2008
Image caption Ian Paisley objects to Gareth Gordon's question at an Edinburgh press conference in 2008

It was never dull when Ian Paisley was around - but it didn't have to be this interesting either I thought, as he glared in my direction saying he wouldn't be "skinned" by me, or the likes of me.

It was February 2008. Two days earlier his son Ian Jr had resigned as a junior minister after criticism of his links with a property developer and we'd had no chance to get the thoughts of his father, who held the post of first minister of Northern Ireland.

But now the pair were in Edinburgh for an official visit to the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond.

The obvious question hung around like a bad smell waiting for someone to ask it - and I was that someone.

"Dr Paisley," I began, timidly enough. "We can't avoid the fact that this visit comes only two days after the resignation of your son Ian Paisley Jr. Are you saddened by what has happened to him? Does it throw your own future in question?"

'Rhinoceros skin'

Now Ian Paisley could be charming and he could be the polar opposite of charming and I kind of knew which one it was going to be.

The reply began slowly - but was soon off the Richter scale.

"I'm not making any comments whatsoever to the press about internal matters in Northern Ireland," he said.

"I'm here on business for all of the people of Northern Ireland. We have done big business today and if you want to sidetrack it you can sidetrack it as much as you have done in the past.

"You're quite welcome to do it. I've a fairly hard rhinoceros skin and I think I'll not be skinned by you or the likes of you."

'Volcanic'

When he was finished, Mr Salmond helpfully added: "So there," before wondering aloud if there could possibly be an opening for Mr Paisley Jr in the Scottish administration.

Image caption In 2008, Alex Salmond hosted a visit from the then First Minister of Northern Ireland Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness

The packed room was divided into two groups of journalists. Those who had experienced Ian Paisley in full volcanic flow before - and those who had not.

To those of us who had - that is, the ones from Northern Ireland - this was soundbite gold.

Those who had not, stared on in wide-eyed amazement. After all, the story was meant to be about attempts to revive the ferry route between Ballycastle, on the north coast of Northern Ireland and Campbeltown, on Scotland's west coast.

'Big guns'

What we got instead was ballyhoo from the big man from Ballymena. And nobody did it better.

It seemed personal in nature but this was unlikely since we didn't really have "history" - at least not on a scale that would have led him to speak in such dismissive terms.

More likely he had his big guns loaded and whoever mentioned the unmentionable was going to cop it with both barrels.

And sure enough, the next time we met it was is if it had never happened.

It is easy to look back and see just why he was so angry. Not with any mere journalist but with fate. The position of first minister of Northern Ireland capped a turbulent political career in style.

And yet he had now lost the services of the favoured son - wrenched from his side by those he regarded as having betrayed him, as the subsequent years would reveal.

Politically, it was probably the beginning of the end for Ian Paisley. Soon after he would be first minister no more.

This week I return to Edinburgh for the first time since that day.

This time Alex Salmond will be the story, perhaps some other journalist will be the target, depending on how the vote goes.

Ian Paisley's beloved Union is in peril but he will not be around to see if it survives.

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