Ulster Unionist Councillor snubs Paisley debate

Ronnie Harkness.
Ronnie Harkness.

A Craigavon Ulster Unionist councillor “absented” himself from a debate on Monday night on the life and death of Dr Ian Paisley, the former NI First Minister who passed away on Friday.

Councillor Ronnie Harkness felt he had “nothing positive to say” about the late firebrand politician and preacher, and spent the 30-minute debate outside the council chamber.

“I felt it would be hypocritical to speak at the debate and didn’t want to say anything against the man and hurt his DUP colleagues and family,” said Councillor Harkness. “So, as a matter of courtesy, I absented myself and let those who wished to speak get on with it.”

The debate mainly eulogised Dr Paisley, with Mayor Colin McCusker paying the first tribute by recalling that Dr Paisley visited his father, Harold McCusker, in hospital and that the DUP leader was “a very kind and friendly man”.

The main glowing tributes were from DUP councillors, of whom seven eulogised their former leader, with UUP and Sinn Fein also contributing positively. However, Councillor Joe Nelson (SDL) tempered the non-stop praise by saying that Dr Paisley had often denigrated his (Roman Catholic) religion, and “especially as a young man I found that extremely hurtful”.

Councillor Carla Lockhart led the DUP tributes by saying it was fitting that the council had flown the Union Flag at half-mast and provided books of condolence for people to sign at three venues – the Civic Centre and Town Halls.

She added that she recalled Lord Bannside, “The Doc, the First Minister and Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church, with great pride”.

“He topped the European poll five times in a row and had a marvellous career both as a politician and a wonderful preacher of the Gospel,” she added. “We sympathise with his family who have lost a loving husband, father, granddad and great-granddad.”

She added that, as a member of the Free Presbyterian Church and through Dr Paisley’s ministry, she had come to meet the Lord. “He forced the hand of the IRA to decommission and sign up to policing. I knew him personally – his legacy will live on in politics and preaching.”

Councillor Philip Moutray spoke of Dr Paisley’s “great rapport with people”, adding that there were three Free Presbyterian Church within the Craigavon Borough, “and nine within the new ABC Council.”

Alderman Gladys McCullough pointed out she had been associated with the Free Presbyterian Church for 50 years, and praised Dr Paisley’s “passion for church and party, his amazing stamina and his prayerful life as a great encourager of people”.

Councillor Robert Smith concluded the DUP eulogies by highlighting Lord Bannside “great knowledge of the Scriptures”, adding he would be part of the province for many years to come, “having made such an impact”.

“On a personal level, he phoned my son prior to his Army service in Afghanistan and prayed for him and his colleagues,” Mr Smith concluded. “He also possessed a great sense of humour and a rather unique laugh.”

Councillor Gemma McKenna (SF) said she disagreed with Dr Paisley views – “But he finally entered into power sharing and became a great peacemaker,” she added. “He took great risks and stuck up a close and fruitful relationship with Martin McGuinness.”

Councillor Kenneth Twyble (UUP) said he had known Dr Paisley for over 50 years and was impressed by him as a man of faith. “He was a talented preacher and led many to faith during his life,” he added.

Councillor Joe Nelson started by saying that Dr Paisley was “first and foremost a devoted family man and very approachable.

“But he said many things against the Roman Catholic Church which I found difficult to take,” Mr Nelson added. “He called the Pope the anti-Christ which wasn’t a very Christian thing to do. He did many sectarian things, although I was delighted when he mellowed in later years. But it’s difficult not to remember the things he levelled at my Church.”