Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

It was religion, not politics that drove Ian Paisley

Ian Paisley
Ian Paisley

Eamonn Mallie must be keeping the good whine to the last. The first of his two programmes on Paisley, 'From Genesis to Revelation' (brilliant title, by the way) on Monday night was something of a let-down.

The teasers at the end suggested that there will be more revelatory material in the second segment, focusing on his bitterness at the manner of his deposal as leader of the DUP.

But if last Monday's offering is all we are going to get on the genesis of his politico-religious convictions, this was a missed opportunity. Two important dimensions of the ideology which fuelled the old firebrand's rise and which help explain the trajectory of his subsequent career were either merely touched on in passing or virtually ignored.

Personal ambition aside, Paisley has always been driven more by religion than by politics. It was the fact that he saw the defence of "Ulster" and defence of the Reformation settlement as one and the same which made him the most intransigent of unionists.

If Ulster was the last unsullied patch of Protestantism in Europe, the duty to defend it was god-given, essential for salvation. To compromise was to risk the wrath of the Almighty. To give an inch to nationalism was to go against God.

It is not possible to fully understand the intensity of Paisley's decades of fulmination against "weak" unionist leaders other than in this context.

Contrary to what seemed implied on Monday night, the DUP, founded in 1971, was not Paisley's first political party. He was top man (he was always top man) in Ulster Protestant Action, set up in 1956 supposedly to defend Protestant areas against allegedly imminent IRA attack. Ten years later, UPA morphed into the Protestant Unionist Party. The explicit references to religious commitment are important.

It was when opposition to the civil rights movement gave Paisley's message a resonance well beyond the ranks of religious fundamentalists that the DUP was formed as a more conventional – these things are relative – political formation, with fundamentalists front and centre but aiming to appeal also to voters more concerned with immediate issues than with the end-times.

Throughout this period and for years afterwards, Paisley was preaching religion as well as well as proclaiming politics and there was no doubting which he reckoned should have the higher priority. In 1969 he opened the Martyrs' Memorial Church on the Ravenhill Road, reputedly at that point the largest Protestant church built anywhere in the 20th century, where, on Sunday evenings, in ebullient and belligerent terms, he would liken the political trials of Ulster Protestants to the travails of the Israelites wandering in the desert sustained only by certainty that they were God's chosen people and would prevail. God would smite their enemies, he vowed.

It would have been interesting to hear him ruminate on that distinctive and defining element of his history and what he made of it now.

We might usefully have heard, too, of the distorted class dimension of his appeal. In February 1969, Mary Holland, in the Observer, wrote one of the first lengthy articles about Paisley to appear in the British press, covering his campaign to take the Bannside Stormont seat from his then bete-noir, Terence O'Neill. She rightly predicted that, standing as a Protestant Unionist, he would do a lot better (he was to come within a thousand votes of the Stormont Premier) than the generality of commentators expected. Her opening paragraph referred to "the revolt of the bucket-carriers" – the rural Protestant poor who didn't have running water and lugged buckets from the well.

"Big House Unionism" and "the fur-coat brigade" were phrases common in the complaints of Protestant voters who felt no sense of oneness with the captains, majors, dames and sirs who acted as if leadership of unionism had been conferred on them by virtue of their background. That didn't figure at all on Monday night, and it was a big miss.

Paisley's religion also helps explain the U-turn which took him into coalition with Sinn Fein. Only devolution could prevent Wesminster imposing on the North laws which Paisley saw as sinful – abortion, gay marriage, etc. And the price of devolution was to share power with then sinners. This may not be the full explanation, but it played a big part.

Religious conviction took precedence over politics. It's always been his way.

Latest News

Latest Sport

Latest Showbiz