“I Could Not Stop Sobbing”: The Effect of Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley

There are more born-again people in Ulster to the square mile than anywhere else in the world. This little province has had the peculiar preservation of divine providence.
— Ian Paisley, quoted in London Review of Books, January 22, 1987

History’s agents are its skilful transformers. They are the creatures of notable drag, those who can don a suit at a moment’s notice to charge into the scene of battle befitting them. Just as quickly, they can abandon it for another, the war maker running into the arms of the peace maker, and vice-a-versa.

So many would have seen the former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Rev Dr Ian Paisley as a monster, himself a fire and brimstone freak who decided to stalk all sides of politics in Northern Ireland with anti-papal venom and fortitude. Even those on his side of the political aisle were not sure when he would burst forth with his Old Testament vitriol that seemed better company in the cosy heat of the US bible belt and Fox News conspiracy than the much cooler British Isles.

His themes were those of the never ending plot to share power in Northern Ireland, largely because he saw the entire existence of the state as intimately connected to it. Never, indeed, never, would he accede to such a deal between Protestants and Catholics – until he did. Prior to entering into the seemingly unfathomable power sharing agreement with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, both he and the very noisy Democratic Unionist Party frustrated every effort to bring the Catholics into the fold.

His hand was everywhere when it came to staging the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike in 1973. He frothed at the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which game Ireland a consultative voice over matters dealing with Northern Ireland. But most of all, Paisley, however embarrassing or crude he might be, never disappeared, or alienated, as his critics hoped. As Charles Townshend would explain in the London Review of Books (January 22, 1987), “Such hopes, whether explicit or implied, show a persistent incapacity to grasp the meaning of Paisley as a political phenomenon, and more especially of the inchoate but irreducible political force known (perhaps misleadingly) as ‘Paisleyism’.”

At the start of 1998, the year in which the Good Friday peace accord was reached, he took his pen to scribble a furious note in the Free Presbyterian church magazine, The Revivalist. Paisley saw deals caked in mud and foreboding.

“This year will be a crisis in our province. The British government, in cahoots with Dublin, Washington and the Vatican and the IRA, are intent to destroy the province. The so-called talks process is but a front. Behind it the scene is set and the programme in position to demolish the province as the last bastion of Protestantism in Europe.”

The themes are all there, all suggesting a person beset by permanent crisis and giddying fury: biblical vengeance, dark forces afoot in the land heeding Satan’s calls, Popish danger, and Northern Island as protector of a European legacy. (How often is there the desperate need to treat the small province as both brave general and gutsy front-soldier in a broader battle of culture.)

The Pope was always a favourite, and rather conspicuous target. In this, Paisley shared something with the scatological Martin Luther, whose own writings on the Pope it resembled. The Pope was behind that “great pan-nationalist conspiracy… sending his secret message to the IRA.” For him, the European Union was somehow in the pay of Catholic favours, a “beast ridden by the harlot Catholic Church.”

A famous moment came in October 1988 when Pope John Paul II delivered an address in the European Parliament. Paisley, as a member of the European Parliament representing Northern Ireland, came armed with a multitude of concealed posters, including “Pope John Paul II Antichrist”. Not content with silent protest, he heckled with committed indignation. “I refuse you as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist with all your false doctrine.” Some might have been sympathetic.

No target was spared the Paisley withering. When he received reports that Queen Elizabeth II was intent on visiting the Irish Republic, he considered her in typically scouring fashion “a parrot of the Labour government.” When the movement to strike homosexuality off the books as criminal was making gains in 1977, Paisley was keen to, “Save Ulster from sodomy.”

In an extract from The Spectator, published on August 13, 1982, an Englishwoman who had settled in Ulster describes the Paisley impact. It was made all the more heavy for the fact that he walked past her window, one guarded by British soldiers. She felt weak. The tears came. “Such an evil force poured from this man that I collapsed in the bed, physically ill. I couldn’t stop sobbing.”

For all that incandescent fury; for all that smoke stack indignation, Paisley could still pull off a few miracles. Precisely because he had initiated his own liberation from cant and the squeamishness of good behaviour and straight jacket pleasantness, he could deal with his IRA counterparts with greater ease. He never had much to lose, because he never had much to gain to begin with. From the untenable positions of almost stone walling absurdity, he could make tenable gains. What he shared with McGuinness was a common aspiration, and well worth nothing – the calls for self-governance are always strong, and in rebellion with the central authority which always saw the province as a “problem”.

As a hyperactive street politician and compulsive activist, ruthless in his flirtations and uncompromising in stoking the fires of protestant militancy, the blood he accused the IRA of spilling was very much repaid. Like true inciters, he wished to deny some of the consequences of his vitriol. But eventually, the ploughshares won over the swords.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.