Last Friday night was quite the occasion over here in Belfast when more than 3000 people came together from all over Northern Ireland and beyond in order to pay their respects to the big man with the once biggest voice in Northern Ireland politics, the Reverend Ian Paisley (85), who has now stood down from the full time ministry.
Whilst the big man may be an established and celebrated/hated figure over here in Ulster, the island of Ireland and in wider political circles, Ian Paisley who has shaped and defined Northern Irish politics for over half a century, may not be so well known to the regular readership of the Huffington Post UK.
He is most commonly known for his brash, irreverent and fire breathing politicking that endured throughout the troubles and for many years thereafter. As a figurehead for Northern Ireland unionists, Ian Paisley was Northern Ireland's real Mr. Marmite. For nationalists and some outsiders he was a troublemaker and inciter of hatred. For Ulster Protestants loyal to the Queen and the Union he was their saviour and guardian protecting and promoting their interests against the tyranny of republican terrorists and those who were pressing for full British withdrawal from the island of Ireland.
The former First Minister of Northern Ireland, who in 1971 co-founded what is now the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Part (DUP), has had a career in the public service which because of his ferocious public speaking and deeply traditional views has consistently been highlighted by controversy. Indeed his staunch religious views and unforgiving political bargaining ensured that he was the ever present thorn in the side of any man or woman who attempted to encroach on the interest of Ulster's pro-Union population.
The man famous for his catchphrase "Never!" certainly was for years the most unrelenting of characters. He stood in opposition against the failed 1973 Sunningdale Agreement, a compact that sought to establish a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland. Then there's Paisley's 'Ulster says no' campaign and catchphrase which he exercised in order to oppose the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement which eventually ensured the Irish Government a say in how things were governed up north. The Anglo-Irish Agreement stirred up a great deal of anti-Thatcher sentiment amongst unionists and brought about the famous moment in 1986 when Paisley was removed from the European Parliament for continually interrupting a speech by the then British Prime minister.
Then there was the rather extreme event in 1988 when Paisley was once again ejected from the European Parliament for calling Pope John Paul II "the antichrist". In 1995 Paisley found himself at the centre of controversy that surrounded the Dumcree standoff when local nationalist residents on the Garvaghy Road, Portadown, County Armagh attempted to block the Orange Order's traditional Twelfth of July marching route. In the end Paisley got his way when he and David Trimble, former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) marched hand in hand through the Garvaghy Road and onto their final destination. In 1998 Paisley continued his theme of opposition when he withdrew the DUP from key negotiations which led to the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a landmark treaty which determined the destiny of Northern Ireland by enshrining the principle of consent.
However as the years have gone on Paisley has mellowed considerably. Certainly by approving the Saint Andrews Agreement in 2006 Paisley changed his course from entrenched opposition, to a route which has since incorporated openness, cooperation and compromise. This monumental change of heart ultimately gave the leaders of Northern Ireland the room to plot a new course for the future of Northern Ireland. Indeed with Paisley's agreement and a conclusion to the Saint Andrew's negotiations that appeased all signatories, the devolution of power to Northern Ireland and the establishment of a local assembly was secured. As such Paisley and his decision to relent were at the heart events brought about the birth of an all party power-sharing executive and thus a new age for the people and politics of Northern Ireland.
Having successfully led the DUP into a landmark power sharing agreement, something that was simply undoable and unthinkable for decades, and with the institutions and constitutional arrangements necessary for peace and progression firmly embedded in the law, Paisley bowed out from party politics in May 2008. But this was only the closing of one chapter of Ulster's most ferocious speaker's life. Indeed beyond the world of politics, Lord Bannside, who was ordained at the age of 20 and who delivered his first sermon at the age of 16, has long been a respected preacher whose fire breathing oratory style was also expressed from the pulpit. However after an extinguished 65 year career in the ministry the Reverend Ian Paisley has decided to step down from his full-time role.
However just as it was when he retired his voice from politics, one can be pretty sure that Friday night won't be the last time the man of God takes to the pulpit. Certainly it's my guess that congregations around the world will have the future delight of hosting Paisley as guest speaker. But this story goes beyond that. Indeed the man who has been central to the Northern Ireland political process still has a voice that lives through his legacy that will go on for years to come. My contention is that whilst the DUP has turned from its "Ulster says no" ways and turned into a cooperative body ready for change, Paisleyisms still run throughout Northern Ireland politics.
In any case now that he has retired from the ministry he can enjoy now focus his energy in full on writing his memoirs, as has been much reported in this weekend's papers. Certainly it was noted in the Daily Mail that Paisley said last year that he would be putting pen to paper and recounting stories that would make some laugh and others blush; certainly something to look forward to.
In any case whilst the Mr. Marmite of Northern Ireland may have retired his voice from politics and now from the full time ministry, it's rather clear to say that the big man with the big voice won't be retiring his voice from the public domain anytime soon. Indeed it's my guess that Paisley has a few more orations up his sleeve, elsewhere or up the sleeves of others that will be hitting the headlines in the months and years to come.
Follow Brian John Spencer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/brianjohnspencr