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From the archive: a 1987 NS profile of Ian Paisley, the “Ulster Autocrat”

As part of a series of profiles in the NS of politicians who “inspire fear and loathing abroad yet are often worshipped at home”, in 1987 Peter Brooke examined the patronage politics of the Reverend Ian Paisley.

By Peter Brooke

Northern Ireland is a region of the UK that has been excluded from the politics of the UK. The people living there have never, since Northern Ireland was established, had the chance to join or vote for or against the political parties that formed their government at Westminster. Consequently, politics in Northern Ireland has not been based on policy for government. It has been a matter of patronage. Under the Stormont Parliament, all the patronage was in the hands of Protestant Unionists. Since the late sixties, it has been a matter of competition between Protestants and Catholics, Unionists and Nationalists.

An understanding of this state of affairs is essential to understanding the career of Ian Paisley, and especially his success in the 1970s. It is essential too, for an understanding of the answer to the question posed in a recent book on Paisley1: “Why would tens of thousands of such people (‘solid, decent, respectable Protestants’) – even hundreds of thousands in European elections – turn out to support the man who has come to personify Northern Ireland’s unenviable reputation as the most impregnable bastion of religious bigotry and bloodletting in the Western world?”

The answer is very simple. Protestants and Catholics are in competition for patronage from a Westminster government which has no electoral stake in the province. Reasoned argument may secure a few favours here or there, but intimidation is also a valuable weapon. Westminster’s only interest in Northern Ireland is that it should cease to be bothersome. Consequently, whichever side causes the most bother is likely to win concessions. On the nationalist side there is a determined and disciplined army with a moral authority residing in a sixty six-year old tradition quite independent of either the electorate or the elected MPs. The division between Sinn Fein and the “constitutional” wing of Nationalism, the SDLP, is complete and the SDLP is undoubtedly quite sincere in its abhorrence of the IRA. Yet the IRA provide a potent argument as to why concessions should be given to the SDLP.

The Loyalist paramilitary tradition, however, is much less secure and it has an embarrassing habit of looking to elected politicians for “leadership”. Much of the evidence for Paisley’s involvement with paramilitary activities comes from disgruntled paramilitaries who felt that they needed his encouragement to engage in violence. They lack the moral independence of the Republican tradition.

Paisley’s popularity derives from the feeling that he is the Unionist leader best able to worry Westminster, or at least persuade Westminster that the Unionist side can be more bothersome than the Nationalist side. He himself went some way towards explaining the situation when he said recently, in the aftermath of the first public display of the latest Loyalist army – Ulster Resistance – that, in a democracy, the ballot box prevails; under anarchy, whoever can control the streets prevails. Northern Ireland is excluded from the democracy of the British state of which it is a part; it has been in a state of implicit anarchy since 1920, only kept in check by the power of the Unionists on the streets. Once that power was broken, as it was in the late sixties, the anarchy became explicit.

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Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Northern Ireland developed oddly. Having been deprived of the politics of the state, confined in a little pseudo state, the confrontation between Protestant Unionist and Catholic Nationalist which dominated its inception remained fixed and frozen.

The province developed by imitating development in Great Britain, but did not share in the battles over government policy that created this development. In particular, religious divisions were not subsumed into the great political confrontation of right and left which came to dominate British politics, though to a large extent religious differences among Protestants were taken out of politics. Catholics in Northern Ireland looked toward the Republic, which was engaged in the great adventure of constructing a monolithically Catholic state.

Protestant Ulster became a model of what Great Britain might have been politically had the Labour Party not developed, and this undoubtedly constitutes a large part of its charm for the Tory Integrationists – Ian Gow, who resigned as housing minister over the Anglo-Irish Agreement; Sir John Biggs-Davison, long-time unionist war-horse; and T E Utley, assistant editor on the Daily Telegraph. Thus, for example, they argue that Paisley, in his autocracy and intolerance, is a mirror image of the Catholicism he abhors. But if Paisley is as bad as the Roman Catholic Church, are they not implying that the Roman Catholic Church is as bad as Paisley? In which case, what kind of attitude can they have to the Republic of Ireland?

Whereas Paisley is merely the head of a small, self supporting Church, the Roman Catholic Church is the dominant institution in the Republic of Ireland, arguably more powerful than the parliament. Where the Free Presbyterians control four schools paid for out of their own pockets, the Roman Catholic Church controls nearly all the school in the Republic and a large proportion of the schools in Northern Ireland and is supported in so doing by the state. It also very largely controls hospital services in the Republic. Paisley does not exercise a fraction of the power of his mirror image.

A framework of this kind is essential for an understanding of Ian Paisley. He can only be judged as “malign” – the word used of him by Pollak and Moloney in their biography – on the basis of certain alternative values, and they do not tell us by what values he is being judged. The best way to evaluate Paisley is on his face value, since it is on his face value that his success is based. Pollak and Moloney specialise in “inside stories”: a further work on Paisley wisely decided that that is not the prism through which to understand the man2. Steve Bruce’s anxiety to comprehend Paisley sometimes makes him read like an apologist for him; as one interviewer put it on Radio Ulster’s religious programme, Sunday Sequence (in a quite indignant tone): “You seem to like him.”

And indeed he does. But Bruce is a sociologist, specialising in religion, and his liking for Paisley resembles the liking a naturalist might have for a rare and exotic plant, regardless of whether or not he finds it beautiful. Most of the book is an attempt to understand a particular religious outlook. But he falls down in his last chapter when he tries to extend his understanding of Paisley’s “Free Presbyterians” to an understanding of Northern Ireland as a whole and the “Protestant identity” in particular.

His conclusion that evangelical Protestantism provides the only convincing rationale against a united Ireland is bizarre, though it is partially explained by an earlier failure (when discussing ‘secular’ reasons for Unionism) to explain the benefits of the welfare state. Equally bizarre is his view that Catholic Ireland has achieved nationhood by transcending its religious identity. He supports this by pointing out that the Provisional IRA have a continuing quarrel with the Catholic hierarchy, but this quarrel is purely concerned with politics and not at all with religion. Sinn Fein is not pressing for a secular education system and they have rescinded the resolution of their 1985 conference which could have been interpreted as a call for abortion on demand.


Although he provides sociological definitions for terms such as “sect”, “denomination”, and “ethnic community”, he fails at a crucial point to provide one for “nation”. Thus, it is not clear what he means when he says that the Ulster Protestants are not a “nation” but an “ethnic community”. It becomes even less clear when he gives, as part of his evidence for saying that they are not a nation, the fact that some of them are toying with the idea of independence!

The largest criticism that can fairly be made of Ian Paisley is that he has little conception of what the British society he supposedly wishes to be a part of is. He thrives on the abnormality of Northern Ireland – the constant struggle between Protestant and Catholic to wring concessions out of Westminster.

Having little conception – or at least an outdated conception – of what British society is, Paisley has little idea of how to break into it. His thinking is confined to the unreal world of politics divorced from executive power at the highest level. He does not have a clear idea of what he wants. His erratic behaviour is a function of the fact that politics in Northern Ireland are largely confined to reaction to decisions that are made at the level of sovereign government, beyond the reach of the Northern Ireland electorate.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP have a sense of direction through their desire to break out of the cage and join the Republic of Ireland; Jim Molyneaux and Enoch Powell, Paisley’s Official Unionist rivals, have some limited sense of the need to establish closer links with the rest of the UK, though they lack the courage to melt their politics into the politics of the UK.

Paisley, however, seems to be content with the politics of patronage and merely discontent with the amount of patronage he gets.


1Ed Moloney and Andy Pollak, Paisley, Poolber Press, £5.95.

2Steve Bruce, God Save Ulster! Clarendon Press, £15.

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