Northern Ireland

Ian Paisley's warmth to Martin McGuinness was no one-off

Martin McGuinness Ian Paisley
Image caption Ian Paisley Jr had previously publicly showed concern to Martin McGuinness over his illness

The voice sounded familiar, the message it delivered clear and to the point. "Leave him alone, Gareth" it said.

The "him" was Martin McGuinness.

I spotted the former Sinn Féin deputy first minister walking alone along the basement corridor that leads from the Stormont canteen, shortly after confirmation we were heading for an election after his resignation.

So, in the expectation that he wouldn't be around Stormont so much in future, I quickened my step.

I intended to ask him how he was keeping in light of his well-publicised illness.

As I did so I became aware of someone else quickening their step behind me as well, followed by that instruction to "leave him alone".

I looked around expecting to see a Sinn Féin official, worried I may have been trying to doorstep their stricken leader.

Instead, I saw Ian Paisley Jr.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionIan Paisley pays tribute to McGuinness for his 'remarkable journey'

He brushed past me, held out his hand to Mr McGuinness and soon was in hushed conversation with his father's unlikely friend.

Now this was at a time when no-one from the DUP had yet said anything in public about Martin McGuinness's health problems.

Following the announcement of his decision to leave elected politics, Arlene Foster and her predecessor Peter Robinson have corrected that omission.

Yet here was one of its best known figures going out of his way to quite publicly show concern for the plight of a man who, let's remember, was about to bring down the Stormont institutions and plunge the DUP into an election it plainly did not want.

I spoke briefly to Martin McGuinness and then left them to it.

And I wouldn't have mentioned it again had Ian Paisley not gone on television on Thursday night and thanked Mr McGuinness for all he had done from the days when he and his father chuckled their way through devolution's bright new beginning.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Ian Paisley Jr's words on The View reflected his father's remarkable friendship with Martin McGuinness

We don't know what the DUP leadership made of what Mr Paisley had to say on The View.

But it's a fair bet they weren't all impressed.

On the other hand, he appeared to have gained an entire new generation of "fans" among those who would rather put their hand in a biomass boiler than vote DUP.

Many on social media speculated about his motivation: "Leadership bid," they cried.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionMartin McGuinness will not stand in the upcoming election

But can the route to the DUP's top seat really be eased by Sinn Féin's former publicity director Danny Morrison calling you a "statesperson" or even "positive, encouraging and courageous".

Firstly, Ian Paisley was probably trying to protect the legacy of his late father and the part played in his remarkable transition by Mr McGuinness.

Secondly, he may just have thought this was the time to fire some home truths at his own party as it faces into potentially the most difficult election it has fought in a generation.

When asked if he fully supported party leader Arlene Foster, Ian Paisley said "yes".

'Easy to beat the drum'

But who can he have been talking about when he said: "I think that as politicians we have to be sort of honest, otherwise the sort of crises that we're in at the moment will become the normal feature of Northern Ireland political life."

Ian Paisley referred to the relationship enjoyed by the Chuckle Brothers, the affectionate term given to Martin McGuinness and his father, when they worked together at the head of Northern Ireland's government.

If that type of relationship still existed, then issues such as reconciliation, would be "easier to deal with".

He added: "It would be very easy to beat the drum and say 'great stuff, another one's off the scene. We'll deal with the next one'.

"Does that really help? It won't put our country back together again. We actually have responsibilities as political leaders to put this back together again and the sooner more of us are honest about this the better."

It is impossible to take this as anything less than a thinly veiled (or maybe not so thinly veiled) criticism of the current DUP leadership, collective and individual.

It is certainly not the kind of thing you expect to hear from a senior DUP figure at the start of an election campaign during which Sinn Féin - if no longer Mr McGuinness - are likely to be the DUP bogeymen once more.

More on this story