Ian Paisley vows never to return to Church he founded

Former Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley(PA)

In a new documentary, former DUP leader Ian Paisley claims he was forced from the leadership of the church he founded. He alleges that the way he was treated has caused him and his family to vow never to set foot there again.

Paisley founded the Martyrs' Memorial church in east Belfast in 1951 but the former Northern Ireland first minister claims that rather than retiring from the position of pastor in 2012, he was pressured in a letter he received from a Kirk session - the lowest court of a Presbyterian Church - signed by the church elders.

This was after Mr Paisley was pressured in 2008 into stepping down as moderator of the denomination to which Martyrs' Memorial belonged, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster.

Mr Paisley founded the denomination in 1951 and was at its helm almost continuously for 57 years.

However, anger resulting from the role he played in leading the DUP into power-sharing with Sinn Fein led those within the church to force him from the position.

When he left Martyrs' Memorial in 2012, his past political actions were not believed to be the cause and it was understood that Mr Paisley - now Baron Bannside - had relinquished his position voluntarily.

However, the former Democratic Unionist Party leader claims this is not the case in a new biographical documentary, "Paisley: Genesis to Revelation".

"It was hurtful that was the way they thought they would treat us," Mr Paisley said of the Kirk session and the church elders who supposedly ousted him

"They did that and they will have to answer to the people and they will also have to answer to God at the end of the day."

Mrs Eileen Paisley described the letter her husband received from the Kirk Session as "absolutely shattering".

"We just could not believe that Ian after 65 years ministry in the same church, continuous ministry for all those years, in leading the church and building it, that these men take this attitude and all of a sudden boot him out," she said.

"We just could not fathom it, we could not understand why."

Describing the church's initial reaction, Mrs Paisley said that many in the congregation saw there was something wrong. She said that they "immediately caught on to that, that it wasn't his way".

"There was just a stunned silence across the church and afterwards people were coming out openly weeping and they said to me: 'We didn't expect that this morning.'"

"...some people said: 'Well there must have been something which has happened because that's not the way he would do things; he's never done anything like that before.'"

"They just realised in themselves that there was some skullduggery going on somewhere and I didn't want to say anything and we just kept quiet about it.

"But since then, there's been a lot of talk and stories being circulated which are without foundation and that's why I feel that we need to put the matter straight."

When asked by veteran interviewer Eamonn Mallie why his family no longer attends the church, Mr Paisley said: "I think they are better not going to worship there because they would not be happy and you don't go to church to sit on nails, you go to church to sit in a place where there is rest and peace."

Mrs Paisley concurred.

"It was almost like a death," she said, talking about why she had not been back there since January 2012. "It was almost you had that feeling that this person has gone, everything has gone and it will never be the same again - can't ever be the same again".

Describing Mr Paisley's removal from the position as overall moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster in 2008, his son Kyle who was also interviewed said "It was like a knife going through you. The family just felt as if we'd all been stabbed."

"They seemed to have done it with such consummate ease. We were definitely let down and betrayed."

But Mr Paisley said he did not want to damage the witness of the Church, and so bowed to the pressure of those who said that he could not hold the office of moderator and first minister at the same time.

"I wasn't going to stand in the way of people," he said. 

"If I hadn't a solid foundation, the work of the Lord was going to be hindered and I am not, was not, a hinderer. I wanted to show people: It's not the office that the man holds that's important; it's the spirit in which he holds it."

However, he was critical of a meeting between an unofficial Free Presbyterian delegation and Stormont on his leaving the Church, saying: "It was completely out of order to discuss the moderstorship in the way it was discussed and without giving every member of the presbytery an opportunity to be there."

Mr Paisley also discussed his departure from the DUP in 2008 which he also claims was caused by internal pressure. The DUP has denied this.

A spokesman for the party has said: "Lord Bannside is entitled to his own opinions – however, he is not entitled to his own facts.

"Dr Paisley, as he was then known, gave a number of interviews on the occasion of his retirement announcement. In those interviews he stated that he had been considering his retirement for some time and had himself chosen the time to stand down. Moreover he denied that he had been 'pushed'.

"The public may well ask whether then or now they have been misled.

"Worse, he now seeks to place the responsibility for his decision on those who protected him most when, at 82 years of age, his ability to perform his duties was seriously diminished and causing widespread concern."

Peter Robinson MP, the current DUP leader, declined to comment on the specific claims made in the documentary, but said of the interviews with Mr Paisley: "There are many who will believe that in agreeing to participate in these interviews Lord Bannside will have done nothing to enhance his legacy.

"They will struggle to reconcile the spirit and tone he presents with that which they will have known and admired. This is not the Ian Paisley we knew.

Nigel Dodds MP, the DUP's deputy party leader has said in a statement "Clearly the passage of time has diminished accurate recall of events.

"What is being said now by Lord Bannside about meetings is inaccurate and stands in stark contrast to everything that he said and did at the time and, indeed, during the years since."

Timothy Johnston, former special adviser to Mr Paisley, said of the documentary: "The events of that time have not been accurately recalled and indeed the 'research' used by the production staff is wrong in many significant respects. Some of the programme content is simply untrue."

The DUP has also denied that it has mounted any kind of legal challenge against the programme, but has stated it may consider doing so after viewing it in its entirety.

They pointed out that unlike the press, they had not been permitted to have a pre-broadcast viewing.

"Paisley: Genesis to Revelation – Face To Face With Eamonn Mallie" will be broadcast tonight on BBC One Northern Ireland, at 10.35pm.