Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies might have reminded the Arabs of Sadat
I once turned up in Belfast from Beirut, to challenge Ian Paisley about the Middle East.
As Belfast correspondent for The Times in the 1970s, I knew the vicious old rogue well, and he always treated me with the same humour, disdain and repugnance that he visited upon most journalists. He could be like a huge, tame dog and wag his tail in a chummy way, watching you all the time to see if you’d spot the moment when he would bare his teeth before clamping them firmly into your shin. Now, I wanted to talk to him about heaven – the Muslim variety – and I knew he was going to bite.
It was 1997, and Paisley bounded out of a side door of the Stormont parliament building – where the then hopeless “peace talks” were taking place – and we had to talk in a stuffy Portakabin crammed with plastic chairs. Paisley needed a church for his oratory, but he was in fine form. How was the Middle East, he asked without much enthusiasm. “Much worse than here,” I said. “I can imagine,” boomed the great man. “Any parallels?” I asked. He surprised me.
“I’ve visited the Holy Land many times,” he said, “and I don’t doubt that the promised land was for the Jews. But the Palestinians are a large body of people – and it was their land as well. I can well see their situation.” Somehow, I did not think he saw the “situation” of the Catholics of Northern Ireland in quite the same way. The Protestants had already decided that they were the Israelis in the titanic struggle for mastery of the six counties – Israeli flags appeared on the Newtownards Road – just as the Catholics had adopted the Palestinian banner in the Falls.
But I always thought Arab Muslims should have put in a good word for Ian Paisley. He trusted in the words of his holy text, he loathed “apostasy” – Isis, please note – and he believed in Judgement Day and Heaven and Hell. And his Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam. Paisley had lived long after the British age of theologian-politicians, of the Cromwells and the Jonathan Swifts – I leave the Rev Blair out of this – but perhaps he had something in common with the political priests of “modern” Islam: Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, its current supreme leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chairman of, even – I hear the Big Man bellowing from the firmament as I write this – with the arrogant self-regard of Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden’s very last-known message hinted at negotiations with his Western enemies, cut short, of course, by his murder. Paisley lived to take things a bit further in Northern Ireland. But I suspect that astonishing decision to make peace with his enemies might have reminded the Arabs of Anwar Sadat, who decided to fly to Jerusalem. And we all know what happened to him.
But what of the infamous Paisley predictions? I still have my notes of our 1997 conversation and – along with the subsequent article I wrote for The Independent – they contain strange hints of what was to come. And what was not to come. What was all this fear that Catholics would soon outnumber Protestants, he asked me.
“I was taught as a youngster that in 50 years they would outnumber us. I’ve lived those 50 years and the figures are not much different. If the figures were that encouraging for them, the republicans would have been content to let matters take their course.” Wrong. In 15 years, Protestants would have only a three percentage lead over Catholics in Northern Ireland and within 17 years of our conversation, Catholics outnumbered Protestants in Belfast.
But he also told me that the Irish economy, divided between rich and poor, would “dry up” when European subsidies were drained, while the Irish themselves were disillusioned with their religion. “They always thought we were lying about their priests.” Ouch.
A few hours earlier, I had been chatting in the Falls to Gerry Adams – less fearsome than the old IRA wolf he had been, not as nice as the cuddly republican he would become – and Adams had said that he would “sit down” and talk with Ian Paisley. “I will never sit down with Gerry Adams,” roared the Big Man. But he’s just told me he’d sit down with you, I said. “He’d sit with anyone. He’d sit down with the devil. In fact, Adams does sit down with the devil.” And, of course, Adams eventually sat down with that old devil Ian Paisley.
But if there’s a devil, I said to Paisley, there must of course be a God; and you could have heard the Big Man’s reply in any mosque. “I believe that I will see God, as the scriptures make it clear, because I’m a sinner saved by grace. Every man stands on the common ground of sinnership. Yes, I believe heaven is a definite place, that God is a real person...”
Our little Portakabin was turning into a Presbyterian chapel and I didn’t know how to halt the transformation. So how come the Muslim version of heaven was physically attractive and colourful – all those virgins and rivers of honey – I asked him. And why was the Protestant heaven so deadly boring, even non-existent? The great Paisley teeth flashed, quite literally, at me. “Ah Robert, you do not know your scriptures, “ he boomed. And as Paisley delved into his pocket and produced a small red notebook with gold-edged pages, I felt the teeth closing.
“Revelations, chapter 22, verse one: ‘And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb ...’ ” Paisley’s voice was so loud that my ears began to hurt. “Revelations, chapter 21, verses one and two, ‘And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I ... saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.’ ”
And I was thinking about Jerusalem when the voice suddenly stopped and lowered to prayer decibel. “Ah Robert,” it said, “you are an ignorant man.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital