Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley: a religious and political life fully lived

Paisley molyneaux
Any analysis of Ian Paisley in life or in death is tempered by one’s own views of him but also ones own view of post war Northern Ireland events: such is the extent to which the man came to define though actually rarely dominate events. There is circularity to Dr. Paisley’s life: he began as an outsider both religiously and politically. He then became an insider politically destroying the UUP and although not becoming a member of the Presbyterian Church so affecting that church that it became theologically very similar to the Free Presbyterians. At the end, however, Paisley was back outside: essentially outside both his party and his church.

My only personal anecdote of meeting Dr. Paisley was at the funeral of my wife’s aunt. Her husband had died a number of years previously (just before our own marriage) and my father in law was her closest surviving relative. At the time we lived quite close to Cypress Avenue where Dr. Paisley lived. On the way to the funeral in Bangor I was stopped in traffic on the outer ring: ahead was a Vauxhall Omega car with the classic greenish windows the armoured police cars always had. There were two large men in suits in the front and a large obviously older man in the back again in a dark suit. I told my wife: that is Dr. Paisley and he is going to preach at your aunt’s funeral. She said she would be surprised as her aunt had been in poor health for years, had not been able to get out to church in a decade, and during her last illness in the Ulster Hospital all our dealings had been with Rev. David McIlveen (a man of great charm, grace and humility).

I was, however, correct and Dr. Paisley was there large as life to preach at the funeral. He had known the deceased years before and gave a great summary of her life, noted all our sadness and majored on the theme that sad as we were, she had now entered into the nearer presence of our Lord where there was no more illness, debility or pain. All entirely typical fundamentalist stuff delivered with power charm and even humour noting at times the deceased bad as well as good points though majoring on the latter.

Then at the end Dr. Paisley rather than rush away spent quite some time talking to my father in law: then a very aged, physically weakening though still mentally sharp man. I did note that he made my father in law the centre of his attention for a long time despite not knowing him before and Paisley’s busyness at the time.

Why the long fairly tedious introduction? Well to understand Paisley both good and bad one must understand the genuine unforced personal warmth, decency and charm. Furthermore the religious and political cannot fully be separated, nor indeed should they be. Paisley was from the tradition of the reformers, of Calvin and Knox but also Cooke and others who though now primarily remembered as religious figures were also politically active. For these men their religious views informed their politics and occasionally they had to compromise on public religious issues for political reasons.

Ian Paisley was the son of a Baptist minister and had a “conversion experience” at the age of six at a children’s meeting run by his mother. Paisley then followed his father into the ministry where he gained a reputation as an effective evangelist reported by many to be a spellbinding orator and the best gospel preacher they had ever heard. That said the position of gospel preacher whether ordained or not who travelled about Ulster and further afield preaching was and remains a common one. The only other interesting point at that time was that his theological understanding was much better than most evangelists and could not simply be explained by his training in Wales. As a fundamentalist theologian Paisley then as almost to the end had few intellectual equals.

Where the Paisley story became different was when he first publicly collided with the mainstream Presbyterian Church in Ireland at Crossgar in 1951. Paisley had been due to preach at a gospel meeting but such was his reputation that a larger premises was needed. The Kirk Session of the local Presbyterian Church granted use of its buildings for the meeting but was overruled by the presbytery. This is indeed an interesting position and dependent on who held the trusteeship of the buildings it is may well not have been legal. This decision was not made on the grounds of objection to Paisley’s politics, as he was not then a political figure. Rather this will have been due to Paisley’s religious views.

At the time the Presbyterian Church had been becoming progressively more theologically liberal for a number of decades with leading ministers doubting the inerrancy of scripture and the beginnings of an ecumenical tendency. The reaction of many especially ordinary members in the pews against this liberalising trend is unlikely to have been solely in Crossgar but here the Kirk Session, with the backing of much of the church, took a stand. The church split and in fairly short order the Free Presbyterian Church was founded with Paisley its moderator.

It would be unfair to suggest that Paisley alone set up the Free Presbyterian Church as the dissatisfaction with the then (now almost entirely reversed) direction of the PCI was widespread. Indeed Paisley was replaced as moderator after one year. However, the next year he returned as moderator and remained such for decades. In this some see the character flaw of lust for power. Some though who know Paisley suggest the flaw to be a more subtle and less aggressive one that Paisley always wanted praise and needed to be the centre of attention: that said the outworkings of whichever the character defect was were the same.

The Free Presbyterian Church’s theology was sometimes dismissed rather snootily by its detractors as not really Presbyterian. However, it managed to be more traditional than the PCI and much more theologically conservative (the difference is much less now) yet not as strict, stuffy and downright dour as the Brethren or Independent Methodists which made it more attractive to many fed up with the theological liberalism of the mainstream churches of the time.

Paisley moved on from contentious religious views to contentious politics. He led assorted campaigns such as that against flying the tricolour on the Falls road. That such a thing was considered worth a march (and riot) now seems incredible but Paisley was always convinced (or convinced others) that such trivia was the beginning of the slippery slope to a united Ireland and a pope and priest ridden theocracy (often with a bit of communism thrown in as well). Any who failed to be as concerned about the papist conspiracy were cast as Lundies: be they the RUC, mainstream church leaders or most especially the aloof aristocratic UUP leadership under Terence O’Neill (complete with dubious potentially fenian surname). Many in more educated Protestant circles laughed at the buffoon though considering the more recent revelations about the Irish state and the Catholic Church maybe there were kernels of truth in Paisley’s blood curdling claims.

Paisley was even his greatest supporters would admit something of a showman and he famously pelted Sean Lemass’s car with snowballs on his trip to Stormont in 1965. The following year to the delight of O’Neill and many in the PCI Paisley was sent to gaol for public order offences. That merely allowed him time to write what many fundamentalist evangelicals regard as one of the definitive works on Paul’s highly theological Epistle to the Romans. Paisley’s exposition probably now sits on the study bookshelves of more Presbyterian manses than any work by his liberal detractors in the PCI.

The late 1960s and 1970s were of course a time of turmoil in Northern Ireland with the fall of O’Neill then Faulkner and the Northern Ireland government itself along with the worst of the Troubles. In all of it Paisley kept popping up to denounce all manner of things but in reality it was not him who toppled UUP leaders but rather their own disgruntled members. Clearly Paisley was important in the UWC strike which ended Sunningdale Power Sharing but again the likes of Bill Craig were more instrumental along with Harry West, Jim Molyneaux and the other leaders of the UUP.

Paisley led a further general strike to force the return of a majoritarian local government promising to leave politics if he failed. The strike promptly failed but Paisley went nowhere achieving his first whole regional electoral triumph in 1979 when he topped the poll at the first direct European election.

The 1980s brought an older Paisley some of his most iconic moments (of delight to his supporters and horror to his opponents both unionist and nationalist). His ringing oratory denounced the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement at the vast rally at the City Hall when one might almost have believed UDI could have been declared. It also brought in 1988 his denouncement of Pope John Paul II as antichrist in the European Parliament. He also set up Ulster Resistance and the Third Force but quickly distanced himself when parts of them became involved in illegality. Though never near any crime himself and always condemnatory of violence this gave ammunition to his detractors suggesting a willingness to whip up others but a refusal to accept any blame or responsibility for any consequences. He even refused to accept that such episodes were mistakes.

However, the mid and late 1980s saw a steady erosion of the DUP’s electoral support under Jim Molyneaux’s canny, utterly uncharismatic leadership of the UUP, which appeared to be achieving nothing, yet eroded the DUP’s base in local government and prevented them gaining any of the new Westminster seats created. Paisley described Molyneaux as “Judas” at one time but in reality the standard appellation of “Lundy” simply could not stick to a man who quietly stated that he had “Out righted” Paisley.

The election of Trimble as UUP leader and the IRA ceasefires initially looked like a continuation of this as Trimble came from the hardest of the hardline of the UUP (initially only “out righted” by Willie Ross). Initially, in the election to prepare the way for talks Paisley did not benefit despite his cries of “Lundy.” In the negotiations, which followed, however, Trimble proved a surprisingly poor negotiator even with help from his politically very savvy deputy John Taylor. The agreement saw Paisley laughed at and scorned by political minnows like David Ervine (a man who’s understanding of overall unionist sentiment was always very limited). By the time of the vote on the agreement Trimble gained a majority for it but many thought only a minority of unionist votes. In the ensuing elections the UUP although significantly outnumbering the DUP contained many anti agreement UUP members. It looked, however, as though if Trimble fell it would be to an internal coup with Jeffrey Donaldson suggested as the leader in waiting of unionism.

During this time Paisley had been uncharacteristically quiet and it was later learned that he had been seriously ill with heart problems: when seen on television he seemed shrunken both literally and figuratively and many awaited his inevitable political and possibly actual death. When he was interviewed many anti agreement unionists held their breath fearing yet another intellectual defeat of their cause complete with an uncharacteristic lack of detailed knowledge from Paisley.

People reckoned, however, without Peter Robinson’s tactical and organisational brilliance nor with Paisley’s remarkable powers of recovery: though some who knew him well suggested that he was never quite as sharp again, lacking the grasp of detail which was once said to allow him to call Cypress Avenue from Strasburg and ask Eileen for a quote from a religious text book, naming the place in the study the book was and its chapter and page number. They also overestimated both the political skill and nerve of Trimble’s UUP opponents who staged multiple unsuccessful coup attempts and then jumped ship almost en masse to the DUP; strengthening that party markedly though also dragging it politically and socially to the “left” (left / right being a nonsense but useful shorthand in NI politics).

Despite some fading of his powers Paisley went into the St. Andrews negotiations as larger than life as ever. The agreement that came out, however, was less of a unionist triumph than many expected. It may have been an improvement on the original Belfast Agreement but only an incremental change: not a frame shift. Paisley claimed that a dreaded Plan B was dangled Sword of Damocles like over his head but many felt that the lust of power had blinkered the old man: that and the combined flattery, threats and deviousness of civil servants, Tony Blair and even President George Bush. The Paisley of yore though also fond of power and the limelight, many reasoned, would have renounced the Siren voices calling him to the baubles of power as robustly as he had renounced the Pope two decades before.

Paisley’s time as First Minister was notable for his bonhomie with Martin McGuinness but also its lack of political substance from the First Minister’s Office: rather Peter Robinson seemed to run the show with Paisley little more than a figurehead. Again that seemed to imply a weakening of intellectual powers: his apparent friendship with McGuinness possibly the same though more likely the simple fact that on a personal level Paisley like many a fire and brimstone preacher is a deeply kind and charming man: a true people person driven to such extravagant outbursts about damnation by his care for people’s souls.

During this time the Free Presbyterian Church had somewhat stagnated. It consisted of a coalition of people very interested in politics and others of almost Brethren like disinterest. It also contained some socially and religiously ultra conservative and some a little less so: everything from those like the Reformed Presbyterians (or Free Church of Scotland) to others similar in some ways to American evangelical mega-churches. Although there was no large challenge from more conservative denominations, more liberal evangelicals and those looking for some of the old Martyr’s Memorial excitement tended towards the new independent churches like Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle or the Vineyard movement with a more charismatic and Arminian take on fundamentalist Christianity. In addition so complete had been the routing of liberals in the PCI (inspired more than anyone by Paisley) that few adherents left the PCI for the Free Presbyterians. Furthermore of course the general levels of religiousness in Northern Ireland had fallen and church attendance and even nominal adherence by Protestants had nose dived.

Both the Free Presbyterian Church and the DUP had by this time begun to become uncomfortable with Paisley’s performance. Criticism often centred on Paisley’s relationship with McGuinness but was also directed openly or covertly at the lack of grip Paisley seemed to have on those reins of power he had waited for so long to take. The church moved first demanding that he decide on First Ministership or Moderatorship. This must have been something of a blow as parts of the reformation tradition had always encompassed both religious and temporal power (ironically like the Pontiff’s). Paisley chose the First Ministership but even that was taken from him a few months later. He returned to where he began: preaching the gospel on the streets and in the Martyr’s Memorial though once again those who remembered the glory that was the packed church held in raptures of the old days would have known it was no Indian summer of his career. His final leaving of the preaching ministry seemed amicable enough with celebrations and good wishes with Paisley off to write his memoirs.

That happy scene was cut down by further severe illness when his death was suspected to be imminent but again the old man pulled through, yet further diminished. Rather than a sad but graceful decline to the end of all flesh, however, there was Eamon Maillie’s interview of earlier this year. Then Paisley was as we now know in the last year of his life. Rather than a reflective elder statesman and preacher he came across as somewhat vengeful and even spiteful.

Many saw in this one side, but only the worst side, of Paisley’s huge and complex character: exacerbated as a frail old man by leading questions from an interviewer determined to stir up division, regret and anger which might have been better left undisturbed. It left a bad taste in the mouth for many who had followed Paisley for years. Now many months later it may be seen to be a less than fair reflection of the whole of the man. Eamon Mallie might think on how ethical what he did was chasing an old man in deteriorating health to try to grasp the last piece of scandal and salacious intrigue before his end.

Paisley in many ways defined Northern Ireland’s problems in the second half of the twentieth century but until into this century he was not actually the lead figure and even then was that figure only briefly. He was a totem pointed to by both sides: the ogreish example of a bigoted Protestant state of the past for nationalists which, with the passage of time from its fall, assumed yet greater levels of supposed discrimination and awfulness. For unionists he was a safety net: a rock to turn to when everyone else sold out: until that is the rock moved.

Paisley although an easy short hand for our problems did not, however, cause them. They predate him and as has been seen have carried on after his leaving the stage. What we now call unionists and nationalists have been arguing and fighting over this piece of ground for at least four centuries, dependent on how one defines it, maybe longer. Paisley in that story of ethnic conflict is only a chapter. His religious legacy may be longer. Knox and Calvin and locally Cooke are remembered now for religion not politics and it may well be thus with Paisley. Furthermore evangelical Christians believe that through the Grace of God under the preaching ministry of Ian Paisley there are many souls in the mansions of light who might otherwise not be there. That is a legacy for eternity, long after the petty arguments of the end of his leadership are forgotten. That is also the legacy of which Reverend Dr. Ian Paisley would always (and now even more so) have been most proud.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.