The many faces of Ian Paisley: AP reporter recalls experiences with unique 'Big Man' of Ulster

Much like the Ulster weather, Ian Paisley could offer beaming sunshine one minute, stinging hailstones the next.

The international image of Paisley — that of Northern Ireland's most dangerous demagogue, a belligerent bigot committed to keeping Irish Catholics at bay and out of power — was well-documented in its own right. But understanding the worst of the public Paisley wouldn't prepare you for meeting him in the flesh.

You couldn't really interview Ian Paisley, not with anything approaching the normal give-and-take of conversation, any more than you could persuade rain to stop falling. Paisley was an unalterable force of nature.

His voice, with its overwhelming crescendos and dramatic whispery descents, seemed to come with its own drumrolls. It commanded silence from his audience, friend or foe. He had his point to make, it would be strident and entertainingly abusive, and no reporter's question was going to interrupt that flow of fire-and-brimstone conviction.

He would look you in the eye using his frame and height to instinctive effect, perhaps jab you in the chest to put you on your heels, and come so close that his characteristic whistling through clenched teeth might leave a drop or two of Paisley spittle on your cheek.

Paisley, who late in life sought reconciliation with his adversaries, was much more than a fear-monger who knew how to whip up a crowd, whether it was the immaculately dressed chosen of his Free Presbyterian Church or a sweaty mob of Protestant militants primed to confront riot police down a hedge-lined country road.

He was a true believer with legendary energy, a master of the human touch on the campaign trail and in the pulpit. Once he had you on the defensive, he would seek to convert you with disarming charm and rude wit.

I experienced this in May 1994 while spending the day shadowing Paisley as he canvassed for votes to retain his seat in the European Parliament, one of the half-dozen political and religious hats he wore continuously for decades.

Two personal protection officers, their jackets bulging from concealed submachine guns, admitted to me they felt relaxed when assigned to Paisley duty. Unlike any other politician in Northern Ireland, nobody had the guts to touch him. The two men, both Protestants and survivors of IRA attacks, considered him in a real sense to be their protector.

Paisley was so popular among Protestants that he would have been certain to top the poll had he skipped campaigning entirely.

Yet here he was, several hours into a breakneck tour of Union Jack-bedecked streets and businesses, storming ahead of his son Ian Jr. and top aide Nigel Dodds, and straight into the most God-awful hellhole in the province: a plant where elderly dairy cattle were being killed, rendered and burned. There were Protestant votes inside, too.

The stench was so alien and overwhelming, every visitor had to fight their gag reflex. Everyone but the Reverend Doctor.

He plunged into conversation with the plant manager about the integrity and long cold nights of their work; the exaggerated threat of mad cow disease in British herds; his unceasing battles with perfidious Brussels bureaucrats to keep the putrid plant open.

Insulting barbs about the Germans, the French, the English and Irish added to a crowd-pleasing narrative of Paisley defending the interests of Ulster's honest farmers against the world.

Then he turned to surprise me yet again.

Earlier, in the campaign car, he had challenged whether I was "another IRA lover from America," goaded me about my Irish-sounding first name and my Catholic upbringing, and deemed me an acceptable guest so long as I wore a "Paisley No. 1" sticker. He didn't ask, just pointed to Dodds to slap one on my chest. As soon as it started to rain, however, I covered it up with a rain jacket.

Now he offered his broadest smile, a gleeful glint in scrunched-up eyes.

"This place would fertilize the hairs in your nose!" he proclaimed over the wailing of distressed cattle. "I bet you've never smelled the likes of anything like this in your life!"

The jubilant tone in his voice was unmistakable: I'm man enough to take this. You're not!

Back in the car, Paisley described how he loathed the Roman Catholic Church, but took special pleasure in delivering results for Catholic constituents who came to one of his offices seeking help. He believed he received Catholic votes because they respected his work ethic, his blunt honesty, even if they wouldn't tell their Catholic neighbors so.

All the while, a tape-recorded Paisley blared from a megaphone atop the car a stream of denunciations of the backward, priest-ridden republic of southern Ireland, and its sheltering of "IRA scum who have butchered thousands of Protestants."

We passed two British soldiers on foot patrol, inexplicably camouflaged in green and blackened faces amidst urban red brick. One gave Paisley a thumbs-up and a smile.

"There's our impartial security forces!" Paisley declared to a chorus of laughter.

Soon we turned down a road bereft of Union Jacks. This was the edge of a Catholic area, the IRA power base of west Belfast. I expected a hasty U-turn, but Paisley proclaimed he could go anywhere in Northern Ireland.

"Most Catholics don't really want a united Ireland. They may hate me, but they respect me because I tell it like it is," he suggested as his aides shifted restlessly and the police guards perked up.

Paisley rolled down a window to try to shake hands with two women dragging wheeled trolleys of groceries home. They looked shocked as he asked them "to cast a vote for Mrs. Paisley's husband." Their faces turned stony and no hands were extended.

"There's no love lost there!" Paisley said cheerily as we drove off, continuing to offer unrequited shouts of greeting to other Catholic pedestrians, some of whom broke out in disbelieving smiles.

The expedition into enemy territory was brief. Back on friendly Protestant turf, a gap in Paisley's tape-recorded address allowed his campaign car to roll up quietly behind two women. They gasped audibly to see Northern Ireland's most famous politician practically on their shoulder, waving and laughing.

"I love these elderly ladies. They generally can't see you coming!" he joked, dismissing Dodds' eye-flaring advice to keep his voice down with further provocative commentary: "I embrace the lame and the blind."

The women appeared to take no offense and shouted, "God bless you, Doctor Paisley!"

Paisley said he'd like to get out, but would be quickly surrounded and fall behind schedule. There were at least a half-dozen more districts to hit before 9 o'clock.

As I left Paisley's campaign cavalcade at dusk, the Big Man was drinking tea and chuckling at the sound of his own recorded voice reverberating through suburban Belfast, the cadence striking the eardrum like tomahawk chops.

"The world must get the message! That Ulster will never, ever submit to Dublin rule! Or Dublin interference in her affairs!" the recording thundered. The two-minute tape clicked off. Paisley flipped the cassette over to start again.

The world got your message, Doctor Paisley, loud and clear.


Shawn Pogatchnik has covered Northern Ireland for The Associated Press since 1991.