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By Andrew Charles
Love him or loathe him Ian Paisley had the ability to stir people’s emotions and arouse debate. He shook every Unionist leader from power since Captain Terrance O’Neill in 1969 and leaves the House of Commons in 2010 with a lasting legacy.
Dr Paisley was the first alternative leader of Unionism who challenged the party that established Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Party. He represented a large section of the Unionist community who felt disenfranchised by the UUP, who were viewed by many as a party for the ‘well off’ and not the working man.
Ian Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) took on the establishment and worked to represent and fight for those Unionists left disenfranchised by the UUP.
Despite his rhetoric and position as a fire brand Protestant clergyman, Ian Paisley always had the reputation for working for all his constituents in North Antrim, Catholic or Protestant. He was a politician who cared and who would give a voice to the silent.
In the beginning Dr Paisley stood in the background of politics while pushing and encouraging others. However he took to the stage in 1969 when he challenged the then Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill for his Stormont seat of Bannside in 1969. He narrowly lost out but claimed victory as he shook O’Neill out of office. In the subsequent election, after O’Neill resigned as Prime Minister and as an MP, Paisley took the seat comfortably. One year later he challenged the then safe Ulster Unionist Westminster seat of North Antrim and gained victory. Today Dr Paisley remains the only member of the old Stormont Parliament in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
This year, 2010, marks the fortieth anniversary of his victory for the Westminster constituency of North Antrim which places him up there with some of Northern Ireland’s longest serving and most senior politicians. Dr Paisley was at the beginning a lonely voice in the House of Commons but will bow out this spring leaving a crowd of eight outgoing DUP MPs. Despite being the sole voice of the DUP in Westminster at first, in 1970, he was joined nine years later by the now First Minister and leader of the DUP, Peter Robinson, as member for east Belfast and Johnny McQuade who was elected as the DUP member for north Belfast. In 1983 the DUP’s William McCrea won Mid-Ulster for the party; however the party did lose North Belfast. In 1997 the DUP was reduced to just two seats after the loss of Mid-Ulster. It was thought the party was finished as the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998 and Paisley was cast aside by the media and the NIO.
In 2001 the party’s fortunes changed under the leadership of Ian Paisley as the party secured north Belfast again, as well as Strangford and east Londonderry. As the party’s fortunes came through in the Assembly election of 2003 Ian Paisley was at the top of his game. He had got to the place where he fought to be in 1969 but could only have dreamed of. In 2005 the party rose to its height gaining nine out of the eighteen Ulster Westminster seats and Paisley took another Unionist leader’s scalp, this time David Trimble’s.
When Dr Paisley stood down as leader of the party he founded in 2008 it was thought that a full retirement was on the cards but he never confirmed it until this week in his local newspaper. As Dr Paisley leaves the stage of Northern Ireland politics he leaves it in a very different place compared to when he entered it. His standing down really marks the end of a tremendous career and the end of an era.