Paisley claims he was edged out of DUP leadership

Former Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley has levelled a series of explosive allegations against current senior figures in the party, claiming they plotted his downfall.

In a frank interview revealing for the first time his version of the prelude to his resignation as Stormont’s First Minister in 2008, Dr Paisley accused his successor as DUP leader, Peter Robinson, and present deputy leader Nigel Dodds, of confronting him with deadline ultimatums for his departure.

According to the 87-year-old former North Antrim MP, now Lord Bannside, the terse exchanges unfolded inside his office in Stormont Castle in February 2008.

“Nigel Dodds said to me: ’We want you to be gone by Friday’,” he claimed in a new BBC NI documentary.

“I just more or less smirked, and Peter said: ’Oh no, no he needs to stay in for another couple of months.”’

Dr Paisley added: “One wanted two months to prepare the way for himself and the other one... I don’t know what he wanted.”

Asked if his relationship with his long-time deputy Mr Robinson could ever be repaired, Mr Paisley said: “No, I don’t think so. His ways are not my ways, he has to answer for how he works.”

In the second part of a series charting Dr Paisley’s career, which is due to air on BBC One Northern Ireland tonight, his wife Eileen also delivered a damning assessment of the actions of current First Minister Mr Robinson, North Belfast MP Mr Dodds and other senior figures in the party.

“I think they assassinated him by their words and by their deeds and by the way they treated him,” she said.

“I think they treated him shamefully.”

Later in the documentary, Baroness Paisley also aimed a personal broadside at Mr Robinson, branding his family as a source of “sleaze” – in apparent reference to the sex scandal that engulfed the First Minister’s MP wife Iris in 2010.

Recalling when her husband told her about Mr Dodds’ alleged comments in the meeting, Mrs Paisley said: “He came in and leaned over the chair and said ’the mighty Dodds wants me to go by the end of this week’. I said, ’he is cheeky sod to ask you to do any such thing’.”

Dr Paisley said his then special adviser Timothy Johnston and the DUP’s then chief whip Lord Morrow were also present at the meeting in Stormont Castle when the ultimatums were allegedly delivered.

In response to their former leader’s claims, all four men told the BBC no such meeting took place as described and said the timing of Dr Paisley’s departure had been entirely a matter for him.

In the interview with journalist Eamonn Mallie, the DUP’s co-founder also revealed that just prior to the alleged meeting in Stormont, a confidential survey was conducted among DUP Assembly members focusing on perceived weaknesses in his leadership.

The research, compiled by Mr Johnston in early 2008, questioned his capacity to do the job and his political judgement, accused him of performing poorly in the Assembly chamber, claimed he was unable to think on his feet and characterised his politician son Ian Paisley Jnr – a junior minister in the Stormont administration – as being tainted by “sleaze” and a liability to the party.

The survey report also was critical of the friendly relationship the First Minister had struck up with Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness – a rapport that had seen the leaders dubbed the “chuckle brothers”.

“If they wanted to put me on trial, why did they not put me on trial?” Dr Paisley said of the survey.

“Why did they not bring charges? You’d think if it was so bad that these people are so worried they would have taken the opportunity to get a meeting together that would have had the power to say to me, ’get out or stay in’, and of course that was never done.”

Recalling her reaction to the survey, Baroness Paisley said: “I was furious to put it mildly and I felt like taking it and ramming it down Timothy Johnston’s throat.”

Mr Johnston, who is now Mr Robinson’s senior adviser, told the programme the survey was conducted at the request of Dr Paisley and rejected any suggestion it was framed with the intention of bringing about his party leader’s removal.

Dr Paisley acknowledged he requested a survey, but said he asked for a study on general issues within the party. Five of the seven questions posed to the DUP’s MLAs were specifically in regard to Dr Paisley’s leadership.

Dr Paisley announced his resignation as First Minister and DUP leader in March 2008 – a year after his historic agreement with Sinn Fein to lead the power-sharing executive together.

Quizzed on his failure to outline any of the claims when he announced he was stepping down – a point made by current figures in the DUP who now question whether their former leader’s recollection has been diminished – Dr Paisley insisted he stayed quiet then for the sake of the party.

“I felt that was private business of the people who were members of the party,” he said.

Mr Robinson took over as both First Minister and DUP leader but he was later beset with his own difficulties when his wife Iris, then DUP MP for Strangford, became embroiled in a political scandal after it was revealed she was had an affair with a 19-year-old man.

The fall-out from the episode was one of the factors attributed to Mr Robinson losing his East Belfast Westminster seat in the 2010 general election.

Referring to the critical comments in the survey about his son Ian Jnr – who succeeded his father as North Antrim MP in 2010 – Dr Paisley said: “They were disgraceful, they were absolutely disgraceful and they were disgraceful because the man that they put in my position couldn’t keep his own seat in Westminster, and my son who followed me had a marvellous victory.

“And for once we are seeing the true nature of the beast – that there was a beast here who was prepared to go forward to the destruction of the party, because losing seats in Northern Ireland is very serious and for East Belfast not to be a unionist seat in the House of Commons is a terrible blow.”

The survey’s criticism of Ian Paisley Jnr referred, among other things, to a lobbying scandal that had hit the headlines in the year prior to his father’s resignation. Mr Paisley Jnr was ultimately cleared of wrong-doing by the Assembly watchdog.

Commenting on her son, Baroness Paisley told the documentary: “Ian’s name was cleared by the authorities in Stormont, everything that was said against him was proved to be false and he never brought any sleaze. His wife didn’t do anything wrong, he didn’t do anything wrong.

“There was nothing morally wrong with his character or his life. And we know eventually where the sleaze did come from.

“It came in the home of the man who is now leader himself, Peter Robinson, it came from his family, not from the Paisley family.”

Assessing the final months of her husband’s time in office, Baroness Paisley said: “They did a dirty trick on him, dirty deeds on him and in the end he was really left with no option than to stand down.”

Despite the manner of his exit from front-line politics in Northern Ireland, Dr Paisley insisted his career did not end in failure.

“I haven’t failed at all and I have no major regrets,” he said.

“I am not infallible, I never claimed to be the Pope, I was just Ian Paisley - an Ulsterman.

“And I look back, I have regrets, I have regrets we are not yet out of the difficulties (in the political situation in Northern Ireland) that we have been in, but I have also rejoicing in my heart that I kept the faith.”

:: Paisley: Genesis to Revelation – face to face with Eamonn Mallie, will be broadcast on BBC One Northern Ireland tonight at 10.35pm.

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