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World

Ian Paisley Was 'Powerful In The Pulpit' And On Political Platforms

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Ian Paisley died today. He was a preacher and politician in Northern Ireland - a Unionist. That meant he was determined to keep Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. Like most unionists, he was a Protestant - a fire and brimstone fundamentalist. Here, he was railing against British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1991 for negotiating with the Republic of Ireland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

IAN PAISLEY: We hand this woman, Margaret Thatcher, over to the devil that she might learn not to blaspheme. And, oh, God, in wrath, take vengeance upon this wicked, treacherous, lying woman. Take vengeance upon her, oh, Lord.

SIEGEL: Fast-forward to 2007. Paisley, by then, was first minister Northern Ireland, working hand-in-glove with Catholic Republicans - people who allied with the Republic and its capital, Dublin. The booming voice was still there, but the belligerence was gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PAISLEY: From the depths of my heart, I can say to you today that I believe Northern Ireland has come to a time of peace - a time when hate will no longer rule. How good it will be to be part of a wonderful healing in this province.

SIEGEL: Ed Moloney has given a lot of thought to this remarkable turnaround. He's the author of "Paisley," and we have him on the line with us. What happened to Ian Paisley?

ED MOLONEY: Well, there are various theories. One is that his wife, who was very ambitious, urged him to take power and make the necessary concessions. There are others who believe that he had a St. Paul to Damascus type of conversion. And then there are others who say that he was cynical and pragmatic for most of his political and religious life. And he exploited the extremism that he preached, but he didn't really believe it towards the end. But he saw this - these qualities as necessary to get to the top of the heap. And of course, the top of the heap is where he ended up.

SIEGEL: People were always at pains to say that the conflict in Northern Ireland was a dispute between Unionists and Republicans, not really between Protestants and Catholics. But here was a man who called the Roman Catholic Church the whore of Babylon. I mean, was the conflict essentially religious for him, do you think?

MOLONEY: I think it was to begin with, but I think as time moved on and his views matured, you know, I think he dropped a lot of the overt anti-Catholic stuff. I mean, in his early days, when he was running his newspaper, they were full of stories of Jesuits and nuns having sexual affairs in the Vatican and stuff like that. But after few years and particularly after he got elected, he dropped that. And indeed, he earned the reputation for being a very good constituency politician - someone who looked after his Catholic constituencies every bit as avidly as he looked after his Protestant constituents. But he never dropped the political extremism. Even when he became the first minister in Northern Ireland, his unionism was untouched by that.

SIEGEL: When I was in Britain in the early 1980s, Ian Paisley struck me as one of the most American-like figures on the British political landscape. That was no accident. He spent a lot of time here.

MOLONEY: No, that was - absolutely. That's because America played a very large part in his life. I mean, he's Dr. - or was Dr. Ian Paisley. He got that PhD from Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Bob Jones, Sr., the founder of the dynasty, if you like, was a very close personal friend who opened his church in Belfast. When Ian Paisley started off as a preacher and a politician, he had a very thick rural country accent. He got that softened and reshaped, thanks the training he got in America. And he was regarded by American Baptists as one the best preachers they had ever heard. And he was mesmerizing. He was extraordinarily powerful in the pulpit and also on the political platform.

SIEGEL: Ed Moloney, thanks for talking with us.

MOLONEY: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Ed Maloney is the author of a biography of the Reverend Ian Paisley, who died today at the age of 88. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.