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Ian Paisley: An Appraisal

DrpaisleyWhen Lord Bannside (better known as Rev Ian Paisley), the founder of the Democratic Unionist Party and the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, died on September 12th at the age of 88, a local newspaper marked his passing with the dismissive headline, Death of a Demagogue.

In some ways he was. He was supremely egotistical. He was convinced that he was a new Moses; God’s man for the hour. His followers were equally convinced. He could work a crowd with considerable skill. One of his tricks was to arrive late at a meeting and stride boldly up the central aisle towards the platform. His supporters in the crowd would rise to their feed in thunderous applause, thus diminishing the impact of the unfortunate speaker on the platform. I have seen several prominent individuals undermined in this manner.


First and foremost, however, Ian Paisley was a preacher. He was a biblical literalist who sought to emulate his hero Dr Henry Cooke, the nineteenth century Irish Presbyterian divine who was largely responsible for uniting various strands of Presbyterianism under the auspices of the General Assembly, opposing the Repeal of the Union and expelling heretics like me from the mainstream Presbyterian body.

Ian Paisley was the son of a Baptist clergyman, Pastor James Kyle Paisley, who preached at the Ballymena Gospel Tabernacle in the Co Antrim town. His upbringing immersed him in the independent unionist tradition of rural politicised Protestantism that involved political organisation, fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, suspicion of Catholics and, for many, membership of one or more of the marching loyal orders. Like British nationalism, both fundamental Protestantism and political unionism has had a tradition of fissiparousness.


Over the decades Paisley himself was the arch-Splitter. He claimed that the mainstream Irish Presbyterian Church has become ‘apostate’ so he launched the Free Presbyterian Church. He dominated this body from its formation in 1951 until 2011. In 1956 he split the National Union of Protestants in order to form the breakaway Ulster Protestant Action. Most famously, he launched his own Protestant Unionist Party to challenge the leadership of the out-of-touch old Etonian Prime Minister, Captain Terence O’Neill in the late 1960s at the start of the Civil Rights campaign. His civil disobedience to O’Neill put him in the dock and landed him in the Crumlin Road prison a couple of times.

However, this ‘martyrdom’ boosted his popularity. He had always preached that the political leadership of Northern Ireland and the leaders of the mainstream ‘apostate’ Protestant churches were selling out the Protestant people and that the IRA and the ‘Church of Rome’ were plotting to destroy Ulster. As the political situation deteriorated, he began to be viewed by many loyalists as a prophet. In 1970 he won a seat in the old Stormont parliament in the Bannside bye-election caused by O’Neill’s resignation. A few months later he won the Westminster seat he would hold for the next forty years.


Paisley was consistent in his opposition to the Catholic church, that “bloodthirsty, persecuting, intolerant, blaspheming, political, religious, papacy”, with its “beads, holy water, holy smoke and stinks”. He won great kudos from his religious admirers when he interrupted Pope John Paul II in the European Parliament with cries of “I denounce you as the Antichrist.” When Tony Blair converted to Catholicism in 2007, he told him to his face he was a fool, skewering him with one look, “and I walked on”. Other Protestants and unionists, less sympathetic, were acutely embarrassed by being associated in the British public mind with this stance.

Paisley’s popularity saw him elected to successive assemblies at Stormont, the European Parliament, as well as Westminster. After he stood down in favour of his son, Ian Junior, he was elevated to the House of Lords as Lord Bannside taking the name of the place of his first ever electoral success. By the time of his death the Democratic Unionist Party, the successor to the old Protestant Unionist Party, had become the biggest unionist party in Ulster. This success enabled him, thanks to the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, to become First Minister at Stormont. To the astonishment of many, Paisley – hitherto known as ‘Doctor No’ – went into government with former IRA leader Martin McGuinness as his deputy. They got on so well that they became known as the Chuckle Brothers.


This familiarity caused considerable unease in the ranks of both the DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church. Some accepted that partnership with Sinn Féin was unavoidable but that he shouldn’t look like he was enjoying it so much. A motion was proposed by his former admirer Rev Ivan Foster calling on Paisley to step down from the Moderatorship of the church. In short order, Paisley found himself eased out of the leadership of both the bodies he founded. In other words he was dumped. He was replaced as party leader and First Minister by the shrewd, unlovable apparatchik Peter Robinson and as Moderator of the Church by a relatively obscure rural Orange chaplain. Earlier this year in a devastating television interview he hit out at his treatment by his former disciples. It was clear that the elders of his own congregation, Martyrs’ Memorial Free Presbyterian Church in east Belfast, hurt him most when they turfed him out of his own pulpit.

Paisley might have been expected to have had a huge funeral lauded by the great and the good of the Ulster Protestant Unionist Loyalist community. Had he died a decade earlier there would have been no doubt about it. Instead he had a low-key family funeral attended by a few friends. There were glowing tributes from David Cameron, Tony Blair, Enda Kenny and most notably Martin McGuinness who all praised his decision to enter government with Sinn Féin in 2007. The praise from within unionism was at best perfunctory. The Free Presbyterian Church declined to issue any statement at all on the death of its founder.


Paisley dominated Ulster politics and influenced Irish ecclesiastical affairs for over forty years. What did he actually achieve and how much of this will last? When he entered political life Northern Ireland had been ruled by the Ulster Unionist Party for fifty years. It had become complacent, corrupt and convinced of its own divine right to run the country however it saw fit. The old Irish Nationalist Party had abstained from taking seats in the Northern Ireland parliament for most of this period leaving the role of opposition to independent unionists like Tommy Henderson and Norman Porter and the Northern Ireland Labour Party.

Paisley smashed the UUP ascendancy and gradually established the DUP as a viable alternative unionist voice. This was a significant achievement although he was helped by the crass incompetence of successive UUP leaders. It will be interesting to see if the party he founded can survive his passing. Peter Robinson is looking increasingly shaky as DUP leader. Will the UUP revive its lost fortunes in his absence or will the Traditional Unionist Voice party led by Paisley’s former disciple Jim Allister outflank the DUP on the right at the next election? Time will tell.

His greatest success was not in political life but in his role in transforming Irish religious life. His campaigns in the early seventies to Save Ulster from Sodomy and to save the traditional sabbatarian Ulster Sunday failed. The shops in every Ulster town open on Sunday afternoons and the annual Gay Pride parade is as much a fixture on Belfast’s calendar of events as the Twelfth of July and St Patrick’s Day. However, his campaigns against theological liberalism, ecumenism and the ‘Romeward trend’ have been influential well outwith the confines of his Free Presbyterian Church.

The existence of the Free Church has tended to keep the other churches on the straight and narrow. Liberal ministers are now in the minority in the mainline Irish Presbyterian Church which disaffiliated from the World Council of Churches two decades ago after lobbying from conservative evangelical ministers and elders. Even the Anglican Church of Ireland is much more conservatively Protestant than the CofE.

For the foreseeable future, Paisley has won the argument. This will be his continuing legacy. Henry Cooke would have been proud of him.



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