Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

The final whistle has blown on Paisley’s brand of politics

Symbolic: Ian Paisley at the Martyrs’ Memorial

Last Friday night, the Free Presbyterian faithful gathered from all over the country to bid farewell to the Rev Ian Paisley, marking the end of his 65-year ministry on Belfast’s Ravenhill Road.

Less than 24 hours after the strains of Willie McCrea's soulful warble, Take The World But Give Me Jesus, had died away at Martyrs’ Memorial, Paisley's former protege, Peter Robinson, stepped out to a warm welcome at Armagh GAA ground, just seconds after the final bars of Amhran na bhFiann.

Swapping the red beret of winters long past to support the red hand of Tyrone, he took his seat with a smile alongside a cardinal and a former IRA man to watch the Dr McKenna Cup final.

It may drive the likes of Jim Allister to distraction, but this is peace in action. Yes, it is an awkward, ramshackly, imperfect peace, full of uncomfortable contradictions, tainted by sectarian undercurrents, tiresome acts of political brinkmanship and the shameless two-party carve-up at Stormont.

But it is peace all the same and Robinson's self-consciously symbolic GAA attendance joins a gradually lengthening line of previously unthinkable things that have eventually come to pass in Northern Ireland.

The strangest thing is that Robinson wouldn't have been sitting in that stand if it wasn't for Ian Paisley. His late-flowering and unexpectedly friendly relationship with Martin McGuinness was the biggest unthinkable of all.

This pair of diehard ideologues had more in common than we had realised and the comical warmth of their connection forged a link that Robinson, although much stiffer and chillier than his predecessor, has nonetheless maintained, to their mutual advantage.

But if Paisley left the political scene in winsome, cuddly-grandad incarnation, his rabble-rousing Calvinist street-preacher side all but forgotten, that wasn't the case last Friday night at Martyrs’ Memorial.

The tenor of the farewell service itself was joyful, celebratory and affectionate. Fellow travellers queued up to pay tribute and reminisce about the old days of protest and dissent, swapping stories about being bombarded with rotten tomatoes and flour bombs, or jetting over to Rome to rattle the shackles of apostasy.

“We knew God wanted us to do these sorts of things,” said Free Presbyterian minister Dr Brian Green, with customary evangelical confidence.

Meanwhile, all the ladies seemed to be vying to outdo each other with ever-more elaborate hats: with all the colourful ribbons, lace and bobbing ostrich feathers, it was more like Ladies' Day at Ascot than a fundamentalist religious gathering, though admittedly with longer skirts and less fake tan and cleavage on show.

Children giggled as they scampered along the aisles, the electric grand piano was set to jazzy gospel mode and tinfoil-covered trays held piles of sumptuous sandwiches, all ready to be devoured once the service was over.

Yet when Paisley got to his feet to acknowledge the praise, the party mood changed. The ancient preacher looked stooped and frail at first. His voice was hesitant and it cracked as he spoke.

But a transformation came over him when he stood for one last time in his beloved pulpit. His voice gathered strength, his shoulders straightened and soon he was booming away like a man half his age.

Under the watchful ghosts of John Calvin and John Knox, he exhorted anyone who was not saved to take prompt action to rescue their soul, otherwise they faced eternity in the blackness and terror of hell.

It was visceral stuff and a powerful swansong. But it felt like a voice speaking from another century, from a time when people dealt in spiritual certainties, when politics and religion held each other in a death-grip and when the prospect of burning forever in hellfire seemed like a definite and urgent threat.

No longer. Now our main cultural reference points are shopping, fitness, Twitter and Celebrity Big Brother.

They followed the Big Man for one last time on Friday night, but this really was about saying goodbye to an era.

Church attendance is in freefall and the Free Presbyterians look set to go the way of a hundred other Protestant splinter groups, marching slowly into obscurity.

At the farewell service, Paisley was described as “a man for our times”. If that was ever true, it's true no longer. Peter Robinson — watchful, unemotional, PR-schooled and proficient in the language of equality, with a canny eye for the symbolic gesture — is the man in charge now. He even has his own Twitter account.

Spittle-flecked passion has been replaced by cool pragmatism. I guess that counts as progress. But has something real been lost?

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