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Ian Paisley, 1926 – 2014: the “Big Man” vs the Pope

Cal McCrystal looks back at the life and career of Ian Paisley, former First Minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

By Cal McCrystal

Whatever the precise origins of the affliction that has finally propelled Northern Ireland’s Rev Ian Paisley into the Great Beyond, certain symptoms were abundantly conspicuous: among them, roarings and clenchings and a copious discharge of epithets colourful, caustic, calumniatory. To call him God’s most execrative expectorator-on-earth is not to yield to hyperbole.

“Vomit-eating dog!” is one of the phrases that bolted from his unquiet mouth at the drop of a hat or a Latin noun or a Gaelic expletive. “Skulking cowards!” and “milk-and-water, spineless, soft-tongued, velvet-gloved pussyfoots!” would tumble out, perhaps as afterthoughts. They were among his milder remonstrances, and were aimed, for example, at fellow Presbyterians who had somehow offended him. The most pungent denunciations were directed at the Roman Catholic Church and any object or person, living or dead, exuding “a whiff of popery”. His Free Presbyterian Church surpassed other Christian denominations in using religion as a physical weapon, a distinction which inspired his disciples to find stones in sermons and to cast them lustily. Thus were enemies belaboured on street corners, pulpits and in the Northern Ireland parliament which the preacher would come to dominate as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

“Men may malign me, persecute me, speak evil against me, or even imprison me,” Mr Paisley once thundered, “but they cannot and will not silence me”. Until the divine silencing, this was no idle boast. He perhaps typified a brand of preacher who assumes there is no point in holding a belief unless it is voiced; no point in voicing it unless it is heard; no point in hearing it unless it registers, and no point in registering it unless it is nailed firmly down with a fist or a head-butt. It may be said that he set certain standards for the current generation of religious fundamentalists of all stripes everywhere who insist on terrorising their own, and other societies, with absolutism. And if he was at times devious, then, as Robert Louis Stevenson said of Knox, “he was dishonest in all sincerity”.

The “Big Man”, as his followers fondly referred to him, was born in 1926 in a largely Roman Catholic part of Co. Armagh. His father was a Baptist pastor, his mother a Scottish railwayman’s daughter. The family moved to Ballymena, County Antrim, at the heart of what would become Paisley’s North Antrim constituency. He worked on a farm and preached sermons from a “tin hut” mission hall, strongly imbuing himself and his rustic retinue with the certainties of Free Presbyterianism. An elderly cleric who “laid hands” on the 19-year-old at his ordination used a very pastoral – and very Ulster – exhortation: “Lord, give this young man a tongue like an old cow”. The Lord obliged.

Subsequently, as Paisley abominated across continents, his rasping tongue earned him not only slavish disciples but the ridicule upon which equally he thrived. A “hot gospel” university in South Carolina awarded him an honorary doctorate, yet the Americans at one point banned him from their shores. Europe, though he sat there as an MEP, was for him “the final antechamber before the appearance of the antichrist”. Only in Africa, much of it already too arid to be harrowed by that scorching tongue, did he appear generally uncombative. At home in religiously divided Northern Ireland, however, a word from him could start a riot or signpost infamy, perfidy and popery in the cause of mob orientation. “You, the people of the Shankill Road, what’s wrong with you?” he once harangued a crowd, “Number 425 Shankill Road – do you know who lives there? Pope’s men, that’s who!” The address was an ice cream parlour owned by a family of Italian origin.

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In a sense, the robust preacher/politician was not atypical of the province that sustained him. In Northern Ireland, history dictates posterity and literally issues marching orders to successive generations. Close-fisted statues and ghastly street murals painted, it might seem, with bile and blood are hailed/endured as perpetual emblems by disconnected communities. Sustained bigotry, murder and martyrdom on both sides are regarded frequently as positive achievements.

Ian Richard Kyle Paisley seldom missed an opportunity to excoriate his Vatican bugaboo as “Old Red Socks” and worse. He described Catholics, many of whom were his constituents, as “popeheads” and Catholic women as “incubators for Rome”. With short shrift, long marches, low comedy and a high horse he came to be perceived, by educated, middleclass Ulster Protestants, as a freak show, and as relevant to modern British and Irish life as Theodoric and the Ostrogoths. Yet to the working class people of east Belfast and the provincial towns; to the dour simpletons of the potato fields and the unruly urban “Billy Boys” (so called after their hero, the Dutch King William of Orange) the fulminating preacher/politician was an enduring icon and vote-winner.

Because its founder’s passions and methods seemed rooted in a much older proselytising era, Paisleyism carries disturbing echoes from long-recessed psychological studies. In a famous 1864 work, Genio e follia (Genius and madness), for example, Cesare Lombroso identified “people [who] would not appear to be insane were it not that, along with the appearance of thoroughness and of resolute persistency in one and the same pursuit (characteristics which they share alike with monomaniacs and with men of genius), their writings never renounce absurdities, continual contradictions, loquacious, foolish verbosity, and another tendency – which we have found to be the strongest of all in insane men of genius – I mean boundless vanity.”

The “Big Man” may have known nothing about the physiology of the brain, but he believed that a chap could be deceived by bad spirits. He felt raised above the stupid idolatry of his fellow-citizens. His threats of judgement and hell were terrific. The credulity of this famous cleric on everything connected with the devil seems very strange today. But that doesn’t necessarily prove insanity. It merely suggests that a man may enter the world with tastes, impulses, and sensibilities which no efforts of education or daily experiences can subdue, and which drive him into collision with other men.

In Paisley’s view it was only necessary to put the Bible thoroughly into practice and all abuses and iniquities in the body politic would surely pass away. While he had no serious ideas about politics, as a religious zealot he saw it as his duty to meddle in the affairs of state, stigmatising all who opposed or made to restrain him. Raised in a region where politics is religion, he found, in the 1960s, the flood-water of opportunity in growing Catholic resistance to institutionalised Protestant preferment. Rapidly his name became a byword for intolerance, though he himself would have shown the back of his hand to Montaigne who said: “What a pitiful mania to think your position so strong, and to be convinced that it is impossible to hold the contrary faith!” Nor would he have agreed with Montaigne’s assertion that the voice of God should “proceed from the conscience and not from the tongue”.

I first encountered “the old cow’s” moue in Donaghadee, a bracing resort in County Down. Arrested for deafening residents with his loudspeakers, Paisley appeared before a special court, held in a local hotel room. Learning that a Roman Catholic priest had celebrated the Mass earlier in that very chamber, I asked Paisley if he regarded that fact as one of his abominations. His eyes bulged, as did the veins in his neck. The magistrate’s arrival minutes thereafter subdued him to a sulk.

While Paisley himself refrained from breaking the bones of others, he was adept at exploiting tempers. In 1964, when three decades of Troubles were five years off, he started a serious riot in Belfast by threatening to remove an Irish tricolour from the window of a Sinn Fein office in a Catholic ghetto. His intimidatory tactics and his followers’ violence caused the wife of the then governor of the province, Lord Erskine, to swoon away.

Terence O’Neill, the then Unionist prime minister of the province who was cautiously working towards reform of sectarian institutions, also swooned away (metaphorically) under Paisley’s almighty goad. Before doing so, O’Neill declared: “To those of us who remember the Thirties, the pattern is horribly familiar: the contempt for established authority; the crude and unthinking intolerance; the emphasis upon monster processions and rallies; the appeal to a perverted form of patriotism; each and every one of these things has its parallel in the rise of the Nazis to power.” Apart from O’Neill’s words it seems remarkable (certainly in retrospect) that Paisley’s ceaseless rant against a section of the people whose traditions he despised was seldom publicly compared with the vicious anti-semitism of the Third Reich. And it also seems remarkable that his country voted to award him its highest office, just as Germany had rewarded Hitler.

Having a proven ability to destroy things of which he disapproved, including O’Neill’s reformist government in 1969, Paisley was elected the following year as Protestant Unionist MP for Bannside in the old Northern Ireland House of Commons (Stormont), as well as North Antrim’s Member at Westminster. He then founded the Democratic Unionist Party, and supported, in 1974, a loyalist-enforced general strike which brought Ulster to a standstill, the British government almost to its knees, and put paid to the province’s first experiment in power-sharing. Paisley strove to sabotage the later power-sharing Good Friday Agreement, opposing Sinn Fein’s right to be in government and undermining official Unionism simultaneously. His tactics, along with general acrimony over republican military capability, turned the latest peace experiment into an on-off, ramshackle affair.

But although willing to break the law from time to time – going to prison, for example, for obstructing a civil rights march – Paisley would stop short, though only just, of overtly directing criminal violence. If his excitations came from “Lord Christ”, his strategic thinking derived from the Grand Old Duke of York. Again and again he led his flock through city streets to the booming of drums, over rural terrain waving aloft gun licences, into Orange halls and along “green” roads. He led them against weak-kneed Anglicans and “the harlot of Rome”. But, up the hill and down again, he never actually led them to the gun room or the detonators. At worst, some might argue, he merely led them astray. Again, it is tempting to see him as Stevenson regarded Knox: “ … hardy speech and action somewhat circumspect, a strong tendency to see himself in a heroic light and to place a ready belief in the disposition of the moment.” There’s no gainsaying his effect on an audience. In 1966, three years before the Troubles began, Hugh Arnold McClean announced from the dock, after being sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of two Belfast Roman Catholics: “I’m sorry I ever heard of that man Paisley.”

Many would support that sentiment. Yet even Catholic constituents acclaimed his work as a parliamentary representative, in which role he conscientiously responded to their temporal needs. Moves to accommodate nationalists in the governing scheme of things, however, would invite explosions of wrath not unlike torrent-lava. Compromise, hitherto anathema, only occurred to Paisley once he ousted David Trimble as Unionism’s leader. As Unionism’s officially elected voice, he was faced with repeating his monosyllabic mantra, ‘No!’, thus making himself a ridiculous First Minister of a paralysed Ulster Assembly, or with coming to a working arrangement with his bitter enemy, Sinn Fein, providing their IRA comrades dispensed with war and weapons for good. As his Orangeism became streaked with grey, he even managed to sit down beside his Sinn Feiner deputy First Minster, Martin McGuinness, and chortle at the world’s inanities.

What drove Paisley? The Rev Dr Dennis Cooke, head of a Belfast theological college who wrote a critical biography, has “wondered if it was personal ambition which was the dynamic of all his ecclesiastical and political activity. Did he want to destroy the Protestant churches and set himself up as moderator of a new ‘protestantism’?” In his ambition to lead Irish Protestantism in both domains, Paisley had “perhaps overreached himself and failed in both objectives.”

What of Paisley’s legacy? Cooke surmises that the threat which the “Big Man” posed to Unionist solidarity “by his desire to dominate both the ecclesiastical and political arenas” will disappear with his death. Time will tell. In Northern Ireland, where hero-worship is magnified and re-energised in the tomb, there seems little chance of the late renowned “Billy Boy” being overly abominated.

For some, he will reflect a century-old character in Harry Graham’s “Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes”:

Billy, in one of his nice new sashes,
Fell in the fire and was burnt to ashes;
Now, although the room grows chilly,
I haven’t the heart to poke poor Billy.

Paisley is survived by his wife Eileen, who called him “Honeybunch”, by twin sons, Kyle, a Free Presbyterian minister, and Ian, a DUP spokesman; and three daughters – Sharon, who is married to a Free Presbyterian engineer; Rhonda, an artist and former acting lady mayoress of Belfast, and Cherith who has edited some of her father’s publications. All lack their father’s talent to abrade.

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