Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

5 April 2001 Edition

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Reformation Once Again

50 years of Paisley and his Free Presbyterians


  Through Popery the Devil has shut up the way to our inheritance. Priestcraft, superstition and Papalism, with their attendant voices of murder, theft, immorality, lust and incest, block the way to the land of gospel liberty.  
Ian Paisley

In 1968, when Bernadette Devlin came face to face with Ian Paisley, she told him that the Unionist state was unjust and unfair. Paisley, perhaps somewhat to her surprise, conceded her point, but then added: ``I would rather be British than fair.''

One has to admire his honesty, if nothing else. His admission was, and is, at odds with more mainstream unionism, which has always refused to acknowledge the iniquities of unionist rule. Unionism, which the poet Tom Paulin once described as ``that dismal political philosophy [which] has never shown any talent for, or interest in, forming ideas'', has always tried to affect a more subtle brand of sectarianism than that characterised by Paisley's vulgar populism.

Thirty-three years after the meeting with Devlin, Paisley recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of his Free Presbyterian Church, on St Patrick's Day 1951. He and his party still cling, very successfully to judge from the 10,000 or so adoring followers who gathered at the Odyssey Arena to hear it, to their old, uncomplicated, political philosophy, which has grown out of and remains inextricably linked to a particular brand of evangelical Protestantism, that it is better to be British than fair.

As Paisley was presented with a crystal ball during the proceedings on Sunday he joked ``I will not throw it at anyone, I promise you that'' - presumably because there was no one in the hall to disagree with his particular brand of fundamentalist bigotry. His quip was no doubt a reference to the occasion in 1959 when the liberal Protestant minister Donald (later Lord) Soper visited Ballymena. Soper had the audacity to question the literal truth of the Bible and Paisley responded, characteristically, by throwing a Bible at him. The incident provides a neat metaphor for Paisley's continuing ability to conflate religious sentiment with intolerance and violent intent.

Within the British and Irish establishment, because of this type of buffoonery and the tumultuous ranting which invariably accompanied it, Paisley has generally been considered as highly amusing and essentially harmless, the target of countless impressionists of varying quality. Because of the ludicrous, clownish outward persona, the genuinely malevolent aspect of his personality, the poisonous content of his rhetoric and the deeply divisive and harmful philosophy he has espoused has never been properly examined outside the confines of the Six Counties.

Certainly, the endless tirades denouncing Popish plots do not encourage serious analysis (and it is difficult not to laugh when one hears a Wee Free minister claim that Foot and Mouth is divine retribution for the queen's meeting with the Pope). But Paisley has often has been admired for his `wit' and `oratory skill' without much thought being given to the purpose to which this supposed wit and skill has been put - to foster fear and hatred. His political allies in London, whilst expressing sniffy distaste at his unseemly antics, did little over the years to dispel the impression that the, not only anti-Catholic, but anti-Semitic and pro-Apartheid Paisley was little more than a common rabble-rouser.

But his undoubted ability to rouse the rabble has had profound and disastrous consequences. As Geoffrey Bell observed many years ago in The Protestants of Ulster - ``Ian Paisley is no figure of fun; the paranoid, Calvinist side of his character gave him a solid base among the God-fearing Devil-hating sections of the Protestant working class and petty-bourgeoisie.'' Paisley is, Bell continued, ``the lower-class Protestant. He shares with them an occasional potential for progressiveness, but is, like them, overburdened with sectarianism, violence and self-righteousness''.

In a largely secular world, language such as ``the danger to our Protestantism is increasing every hour, and it behoves those that desire to preserve what remains, to drive the enemy from the gate, and to rid themselves without a moment's loss of time of the Popish Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation'' does seem worthy only of ridicule, but it has proved to be highly motivating to much of the unthinking, God-fearing members of the Six County Bible belt. Thousands were prepared to follow Paisley into Ulster Resistance in order to defend the Six Counties ``by force if necessary''. Although age may have dimmed him physically, his ability to inspire similar devotion seems as strong as ever.

When Paisley Junior called Gerry McHugh a ``Papish bigot'' (brilliantly using a perjorative sectarian term in order to label someone else a bigot) during a debate at Stormont when McHugh dared to suggest that the Free Presbyterians' 50th anniversary celebrations should be postponed until after the Foot and Mouth crisis had subsided, he was not only responding to 30-odd years of parental domination and parroting the old man's senseless ravings. He was also demonstrating the way Paisley Senior has contributed hugely to the corruption of both religion and politics in the north of Ireland.

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