Filmmaker Jon Ronson remembers the firebrand Northern Irish politician Ian Paisley

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and it's The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH here in Boston. When we talk about the past troubles in northern Ireland, we often hear the name Gerry Adams, the head of Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Irish republican army, catholic and opposed to British rule. On the other side, a name many of us, including myself until this morning, are mostly unfamiliar with: Reverend Ian Paisley, a protestant man of the cloth and a politician, one of the most controversial and polarizing figures during the troubles. Reverend Paisley died today in Belfast. His reputation as a firebrand was made in the pulpit with loyal congregants and in the streets, leading angry mobs. Paisley has often been blamed for feeding the fire of violence in northern Ireland. He ultimately became something of a peacemaker, but only after years of fueling conflict. Writer and filmmaker Jon Ronson witnessed this unique personality up close in Cameroon, in Central Africa of all places. Jon, what were you an Ian Paisley doing in Cameroon in the first place? Jon Ronson: He had exiled himself from the northern Ireland peace protest. This was in 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement, which was the agreement which would end the war in northern Ireland, was about to be signed. Ian Paisley was deeply opposed to it, and so he exiled himself to Cameroon, where he said he was going to preach to the sinners. So we asked him if we could come along and make a film about his missionary work. I spent a week with him in Cameroon and he went from church to church preaching in this incredibly inspiring, impressive way. Werman: What did the Africans make of him there, the Cameroonians? Ronson: He was like Dr. Livingstone, this huge Godzilla-like figure. I say Godzilla-like because I remember at one point we turned up at a church in the middle of nowhere and they couldn't get the power to work. Dr. Paisley borrowed our camera light to illuminate him and he was standing in front of this church with this huge shadow coming from our little camera light and he really did look like Godzilla. He was yelling "Christ stands before you with a nail-pierced hand. He's knocking to get in. Will you let him in?" He was something to see, I can tell you. Werman: Did you ever see him preach in Belfast and did he amp up the firebrand when he was in Cameroon, or was that just the gear he always operated in? Ronson: That was the gear he always operated in. He would roar. I did see him preach in Belfast. By then, he'd gotten to know me and his nickname - he had three nicknames for me; one was "the jew," and another was "my jewish friend," and the third one was "my circumcised friend." Seeing in Belfast while he was preaching to young loyalist disenfranchised men, I remember him from the pulpit, spotting me and saying "The jew is here!" Werman: Were you ever insulted by that? Ronson: I remember feeling little flashes of annoyance. When we were on this long journey through these potholed streets in Cameroon and we both had walkie-talkies, his jeep and mine, and he kept on saying these really anti-semitic things, he didn't know that we were filming him. At one point, he said "If I was you, I wouldn't try and overtake me because there's some light dew on the grass. There's some jew on the grass." I said "Can you repeat that please, Dr. Paisley? I'm not sure I heard you right," and he said "You heard me right, over and out." Werman: After a week of shadowing Ian Paisley, did you end up disliking him after all of this? Ronson: You know what, I understand that everything I've said about him in this conversation makes him sound terrible. I kind of ended up liking him. I ended up having respect for him. At one point, I remember we crept into this hotel and there was a painting of a topless woman on the wall and he didn't know he was being watched and I saw him take the painting off the wall and put it in the wardrobe. Then I'd see him reading his Bible and he'd made little notes all over his Bible. I thought "Well, whatever you are, you're not hypocritical." The biggest respect of all was towards the end of his life, he embraced peace. He began doing something which nobody in a million years predicted, which was he went on the road with Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness, who was Gerry Adams' deputy and the two of them became firm friends. They started giving talks together, extolling peace. Werman: This man who once screamed from the gallery at the European Parliament to the pope's face "The pope is the antichrist," insulting you as a jew, how will you remember him? Ronson: I'm kind of a tough-hearted person and I remember our week in Cameroon as being a wonderful adventure. First and foremost, and I realized this since Belfast because I was never a victim of loyalist violence in northern Ireland, I have fond memories, that I had this adventure with him. However, if you spoke to a catholic growing up in northern Ireland in the 1970's, he really instilled fear in a lot of people. Somebody once told me that he was a fantastic recruiting tool for the IRA because every time he gave a speech, he was so terrifying that young catholic men felt compelled to join the IRA because they were fighting such a terrifying opposition. Werman: Reverend Ian Paisley dead at the age of 88. Jon Ronson, filmmaker and writer, thanks for telling us about him. We appreciate it. Ronson: My pleasure.