Paisleyland warms to burying past attacks

IAN PAISLEY’S transformation from hate-baiter-in-chief to fluffy cuddle-monger continues to astound.

The bitterest of winds was blowing through his Ballymena heartland yesterday, but he still managed to seduce Bertie Ahern with the warmest of welcomes.

How different to the not so distant days when he would pelt a visiting Taoiseach’s car with snowballs and bile.

Not that the new First Minister is in anyway ashamed of his past, as exemplified by his first words to Mr Ahern as the Taoiseach disembarked from his helicopter.

“You’re lucky there’s no snow for Paisley to throw,” the DUP leader told him, speaking in the third person as if to emphasis his split personality.

Perhaps it was the novelty of seeing a friendly face after his difficult week in the Dáil, but Mr Ahern responded with a genuine, throaty laugh, not the usual thin-lipped smile.

How ironic the Taoiseach now has to head to Ballymena to get a sunny reception after being on the receiving end of an increasingly cold shoulder at home.

However, the words of the two men were largely irrelevant as they were at the opening of this plush health spa, revamped to the tune of e25m, to let money do all the talking.

Ulster used to say: “No!” now it just says: “Do you know the way to Ikea?”

A change of gear from death threat to lifestyle culture emphasised by the fact that only one lonely looking union jack waving protester bothered to turn up in the sumptuous grounds to protest at the presence of the Southern invader.

The Orangeman fervently believed Mr Paisley had betrayed both God and Ulster and this joint spa appearance was the launching pad for what must surely end in a 32-county Republic — exactly the kind of hysterical nonsense the First Minister used to spout in the days when he was still talking snow balls.

Inside the pamper centre, Ahern and Paisley had gathered round a grand piano to duet on the Green Glens of Antrim while Phil Coulter tinkled the ivories by a roaring open fire — the two leaders looking for all the world like a latter day, soft focus version of a Bing Crosby/Dean Martin TV Christmas special.

The giggle-meister First Minister chuckled Mr Ahern was “under his control” in the heart of Paisleyland, but added something significant with a remark marking the momentous new direction the previously fearful, suspicious and insular Northern Unionists have taken in recent times: “We need help from outside. We can’t live on our own.”

The words are more poignant given that Ballymena is where a 15-year-old boy was murdered for simply being Catholic just 18 months ago.

However cold it was getting in Ballymena, it still felt like the temperature would have to drop to freezing level and cover all of hell before Mr Paisley was ready to build on his newfound friendship with the Taoiseach and bury the hatchet with that other old enemy, the Pope — or “the whore of Babylon” as the First Minister prefers to call the Holy Father.

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