Faith, scope and clarity - how one local lensman kept his focus during troubles

Dessie Blackadder


Dessie Blackadder

Paul Faith started his career in the Ballymena Guardian as a darkroom technician in the 1980s before being appointed as a photographer covering local news and events.

After gaining valuable experience on the traditional weekly for a few years, he joined Pacemaker Press International in Belfast, covering the Troubles across the province for 15 years.

During that time he won many awards in news and sport including the title Press Photographer of the year on three occassions.

He subsequently joined the Press Association as a staff photographer covering the peace process, and international events across Ireland and abroad.

While his lens has captured many iconic images it is arguably his remarkable, totally natural shot of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness at Stormont, which became known as the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ which is most famous with the general public.

The story of how that blink-of-an-eye moment came about is featured in a new volume, ‘Reporting The Troubles’ and we are grateful to Paul - the only photographer featured - for permission to use his images and to quote from his essay in the book.

Paul has now settled in the Glens of Antrim, where he now works as full time freelance photographer,covering events across Ireland for the world wide agency, Agency France-Preese (AFP) ,as well as serving local Government and local business providing high end public relation pictures.

‘I could see the picture unfold before it happened’

Paul Faith: A couple of officials from the Northern Ireland Office were standing over my shoulder as I was transmitting the photograph downstairs in a basement room at Parliament Buildings, and I could hear one of them say, ‘Brilliant. That’s what we want to see. They’ll love this in London …’

I don’t know where the title ‘The Chuckle Brothers’ originated, but of the thousands of photographs I’ve taken in thirty years in this business, this is the one that seems to have stood out. It might even define my career. An ordinary enough shot.

Two guys in fits of laughter. Two guys, once avowed enemies who could barely stand the sight of each other, but now the best of pals, and content to share this astonishing new-found friendship with the rest of the world.

I always got on well with them. The relationship with Paisley stretched back to my formative days with the Ballymena Guardian – a time when he was causing all sorts of anti-establishment mayhem, and when he was not particularly well disposed towards the media, especially certain individuals in the print and broadcasting industry.

But he always seemed to have a soft spot for me. He didn’t mind me referring to him as ‘the Doc’, and even though his hostile attitude towards the press was legendary, he kept an eye out for me.

One night we were waiting for him in the town of Portglenone, County Antrim, where a crowd had gathered for one of his rallies in the aftermath of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. The blood was up, and some of his supporters were itching to have a go at a group of journalists.

But once his armour-plated, bulletproof Granada pulled up, he emerged from the back and implored them to behave. I don’t think he knew my religious background, but he pointed towards me, a fellow Ballymena man, and declared in that unmistakable tone, ‘Leave him alone. He’s with me. He’s a good man.’

Everywhere Paisley went, I went, at all hours of the day and night. I recall waiting for him at his home as Eileen, his wife, served him porridge for breakfast before he headed out with his police bodyguards. It might have been to a demonstration somewhere, or out electioneering in North Antrim, with me following behind and trying to keep up in an old Vauxhall Nova.

Not everybody was aware of his empathy towards me, especially when he was on the warpath. Paisley in full flow could be a fearsome sight, and his supporters worshipped him. He had this aura. He could whip them into a frenzy, and I never doubted for a moment there could be a dark and menacing side to him as well. I know some reporters, and one or two photographers, felt uneasy at times in his company.

At an Ulster Resistance rally in Ballymena he pulled on a red beret before saluting the crowd to provide me with an exclusive photograph. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. I was working for Pacemaker Press at the time, and I had a very uncomfortable feeling about where this would all end up.

Back in those days Northern Ireland was a terrible place. Working closely with the Doc was always difficult – the situation could change in a heartbeat and his followers weren’t big fans of the press. At times I felt vulnerable – something I often confided to my wife, Margaret. But I had a family to feed and this was a job that needed doing.

Martin McGuinness was different. I’d known him as long as I knew the Doc. Although he was somebody with a questionable past, I left it to others to query his reputation and political credentials – and, of all the prominent figures, I found him probably the most accommodating. I remember mourners getting pretty restless with the media at the funerals of three IRA men shot dead by the SAS near Carrickmore, County Tyrone.

He could see I was a little anxious. After he stepped in and appealed to the crowd, I told him I was okay. He whispered, ‘The locals don’t always listen to the ones from Belfast …’ At another IRA funeral in Crossmaglen, South Armagh, which was coming down with police and soldiers, he could see I was there for one particular photograph.

Sure enough when the security forces were busy taking up places in and around the graveyard, an IRA colour party suddenly appeared beside the coffin outside the church, McGuinness shoulder to shoulder with them.

He never spoke, but he knew I had the photograph I wanted.

He and I loved fishing and one day in Belfast he spotted a fly rod in the back of my car. He told me he’d been out the night before trying to catch sea trout in Donegal. He could hear the fish moving and jumping in the dark, but never got so much as a bite.

And then just before daybreak, he caught this beauty. He was so pleased with himself. But then he said, ‘Paul, what do you think I did next? I unhooked it, cradled it in the water, reviving it in the fastflowing oxygen-filled river, letting it swim free, and disappear.’

That was typical of the Martin McGuinness I got to know in the later years of his life. Generous, softly spoken, and courteous. I remember a few years later, after I photographed him shaking hands with the Queen, he came up to me during the Irish Open golf championship at Royal Portrush and said: ‘You’ve made me famous again.’

He then insisted we pose for a photograph as a keepsake in the media centre.

After all these years it was obvious he and Paisley were at peace with themselves, especially in each other’s company. So on that day at Parliament Buildings in May 2007 when they were sworn in as first minister and deputy first minister, everything just fitted into place.

Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern and Peter Hain were also there. They had been laughing and joking earlier in Paisley’s room as they prepared to announce the restoration of the power-sharing executive.

The Doc turned to Blair and said: ‘Here’s me, a man of eighty-four, preparing to enter office, and there’s you, just fifty-four, getting ready to leave …’

The mood was so relaxed and it was such an exciting time to be in there with them. I was working for the Press Association and no other photographer was present.

And when they walked down the steps at the Great Hall to make the announcement, Paisley and McGuinness taking their seats beside the British and Irish prime ministers, I could already envisage the photograph.

Paisley was tap-tapping the railing, and when Blair recalled the Doc’s throwaway remark about him standing down as prime minister, I could see the picture unfold before it happened. I held my finger on the shutter and captured one of the great moments in Northern Ireland’s troubled history. It was just perfect.

Reporting the Troubles: Journalists tell their stories of the Northern Ireland conflict. By Deric Henderson and Ivan Little is now on sale in good book shops.

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