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State Papers

When Bertie met Paisley: Attacks on Presbyterian churches led to meeting between two leaders

Ian Paisley sought the meeting with Bertie Ahern to discuss “religion and not politics”.

THE FIRST FACE-to-face meeting between Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and DUP leader Ian Paisley at Government Buildings in 1999 was held following attacks on Free Presbyterian church property, with ‘religion, not politics’ being discussed.

Formerly confidential files on the meeting between the two leaders have been released to the National Archives, detailing how the meeting came about through a letter sent to Ahern by Paisley.

The documents, which come from the Department of An Taoiseach’s Northern Ireland Division in 1999, provide further historical context around the years leading up to and following the Good Friday Agreement.

The meeting came eight years ahead of their famous meeting in 2007, when then-First Minister Paisley shook Ahern’s hand at Government Buildings.

90096410 Ian Paisley, the Northern Ireland First Minister with his wife Eileen meet Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Government Buildings in 2007

Paisley initially formed the Free Presbyterian Church in 1951, leading the church until 2008 and working as a reverend until 2012.

The meeting between the two leaders took place following the Good Friday Agreement, which Paisley and the DUP had opposed due to the presence of Sinn Féin at the talks.

Ahern had worked with then-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair to negotiate the peace agreement, which was then ratified in April 1998.

While two DUP ministers served in the Executive, Nigel Dodds and Peter Robinson, they refused to attend meetings of the Executive Committee – which was essentially the Cabinet – due to Sinn Féin’s participation.

Paisley initially sought the meeting with Ahern on 20 September 1999 following an attack on a Free Presbyterian church in Corragarry, Co Monaghan on 4 July 1999.

In a letter addressed to Ahern, Paisley said that there was over £100,000 pounds worth of damage done and that a Garda had told him that it was caused by “drunken vandals” and there wasn’t a religious motivation.

“The reasons given by the Garda to me personally, that this was an act of drunken vandals and that there was no religious motivation. I simply do not accept,” Paisley wrote.

He also details a second attack on an Orange Hall in Castleblayney, Co Monaghan, which was being refitted to become a Free Presbyterian church.

“In view of these attacks the Presbytery requests an urgent meeting with to to put this very serious affair before you.”

The meeting itself was held 10 days later on 30 September, with a confidential note detailing how Paisley specifically said that he was in Dublin to speak about “religion and not about politics”. The note, written by Ahern’s advisor Martin Mansergh, reports that the Taoiseach accepted this and the meeting carried on.

During the meeting, Ahern condemned the attacks against the Presbyterian church property and said that while Gardaí believed it was vandalism, he accepted that it may have been a sectarian attack.

He added that he would be asking Gardaí to increase their vigilance in protecting churches in Monaghan and in border counties.

“Dr Paisley said it had been a useful and helpful meeting. He was grateful for the Taoiseach’s prompt response to this request. The Taoiseach, he said, had clearly been well-briefed, and any statement he could make in the Dáil would be helpful,” the report of the meeting reads.

The note also details how Paisley and Ahern had a private conversation following the meeting, before Paisley departed.

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