Cuckoo in the nest?

Having previously denounced those who suggested holding out the hand of friendship to nationalists as communists, subversives and gangsters, Ian Paisley now sits with a smile beside Gerry Adams and talks to Bertie Ahern about his Irish roots. Did he have a Road to Damascus conversion, or is he now more in the driving seat than ever? By Roy Garland


As a teenager I knew Ian Paisley as a mission-hall and street preacher. I first saw him preaching to a small group of people in the mid-1950s on ground laid waste by German bombing at Percy Street off Belfast's Shankill Road. He was shouting through a loud hailer and telling listeners to “marry your own”. Joseph Ross, a local Unionist councillor, observed the proceedings from a distance – this was the first indication for me that there might be political implications. My dad, an assistant pastor in Percy Street, told me he had asked Ian Paisley to speak in our hall. Paisley enquired about numbers and then declined the invitation. My father believed Paisley was more concerned with popularity than with the gospel.


His preachings and warnings about Ulster being sold out were tinged with humour and a political edge. His sermons often included denunciations of suspected betrayals or IRA atrocities.


His first party was the Protestant Unionist Party (PUP) but by September 1971, under the tutelage of his lawyer friend Desmond Boal, he launched the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) amid the wreckage of the Four Step Inn, which had been bombed by the Provisionals. Boal could see no future for a Protestant party tied to a narrow sectarian agenda, and the DUP was to be to the left on many issues but strong on the constitution. It would combine evangelical Protestants and working-class loyalists, although in practice it seemed to become dominated by middle-class fundamentalists.


When his own backwoodsmen are stirred into action, Paisley tends to retreat. At the moment, however, he seems to be for real. Before the recent election in Northern Ireland, the ground had been well prepared with tightened control mechanisms in place. These included signed contracts and financial penalties for those politicians tempted to oppose party policy. Historian and former DUP member Clifford Smyth thinks Paisley is more of a frontman for others who need his image to sell any new departure and reduce internal dissention.


He remains moderator of the church he founded – the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster. That word “Presbyterian” is misleading – the church has more in common with American fundamentalism than with Irish Presbyterianism. And Paisley has more in common with Oliver Cromwell, the first republican in Ireland, than with the Irish Presbyterian church. He has condemned the Presbyterian church as apostate because of its former association with the World Council of Churches and its alleged fraternising with Rome. For him, the Roman Catholic church is a conspiracy against the “people of God” and is not Christian in any sense but characterised by rituals and symbols whose origins lie in paganism.


Despite the baggage, Ian Paisley recently astounded observers by engaging in a cordial meeting with Catholic archbishop Sean Brady. In 1963, at a church service in the Ulster Hall, he protested at the temerity of UUP politicians who permitted the lowering of the Union Flag as a mark of respect on the death of Pope John XXIII. In anger, Paisley called on his congregation to join him in protest at Belfast City Hall. In 1975, Ian Paisley countenanced rival Unionist William Craig's modest proposals for voluntary coalition with the SDLP, but then backed off, leaving Craig isolated. Today, Paisley accepts mandatory coalition with republicans – something Craig would never have tolerated. In this, Paisley stands in line with the accusers of traitor Robert Lundy of Siege of Derry fame. Those who condemned Lundy were apparently seeking a similar deal with the Catholic enemy beyond the gates.


Another notorious U-turn took place in 1979 when Paisley stood for Europe. He had previously denounced the EEC as a political expression of the biblical Mystery Babylon the Great, based on the infamous Treaty of Rome. This did not stop him joining. In an attempt to diffuse potential discontent, he proclaimed that his intention was to milk the EU for Ulster. There have been suggestions of late that Ian Paisley had a near-death experience during his recent illness and God told him to deal with Sinn Féin. Yet just a year ago he reportedly rejected “the blatant lie that the IRA has decommissioned all its weapons”. However, as an evangelical fundamentalist, he believes that change is possible even for the vilest of sinners. The key to his political success lies in his religious trappings and reputation. As a gospel preacher, he can tap into fears and uncertainties. He convinced many of their need to be “born again” – his ability to “win souls” remains an important political asset.


No other senior unionist can sit so comfortably with Gerry Adams or speak so freely to Bertie Ahern of his Irish roots. Yet in 1995, when a photograph showing me standing alongside Gerry Adams and former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds appeared in a local unionist newspaper, Ian Paisley jnr called on the UUP to censure me, and some UUP branch officers tried to oblige. One of my inquisitors explained why my crime was so reprehensible – I was smiling! But surely I could detect a glimmer of a smile on Ian Paisley's face as he sat beside Gerry Adams.


Down through the years, Ian Paisley has made positive remarks about St Patrick, who he regards as a Protestant because of his evangelical outlook. In 1970, the inauguration of an Orange lodge, Oidhreacht na hÉireann, was warmly welcomed in the pages of Paisley's Protestant Telegraph. It was Ulster's only Orange lodge to display its title in Irish and English over a large map of Ireland that did not include any border. Things Irish are not as foreign to Ian Paisley as some people think, but to speak so warmly and openly of his Irish roots is refreshing given that many of his supporters proclaim an exclusive British or Ulster Scots identity.


A friend recently attended a Martyrs Memorial church service and reported that Rev Paisley had referred to the need to reach out to neighbours. He planned to be in the Republic and meet the Irish Taoiseach to reach out the hand of friendship to our southern neighbours also. No one demurred. The southern Irish state was previously presented as a Catholic-dominated, alien, priest-ridden society – a haven for republican terrorists. But more recently Dr Paisley – the doctorate was conferred by an American fundamentalist university – admitted to a Catholic friend that the Irish Republic has changed


A DUP source insists, however, that there was no Damascus-road conversion: “Ian Paisley is very much the man he has always been.” He hasn't abandoned anything, but has brought the IRA onto new ground and is now in the driving seat. This doesn't fit easily with Paisley's admission that he was threatened with Plan B – direct rule with a very green tinge. Uncharacteristically, the DUP has drawn on the slogan “no alternative” rather than the more traditional “no surrender”.


No recognition is given to those who prepared the way, and Paisley has become the cuckoo in David Trimble's nest after previosly making things very difficult for others. Leading loyalists told of their exasperation when trying to encourage their people into a peaceful mode while Ian Paisley proclaimed “sell-out” ad nauseam and that a united Ireland had arrived or was about to descend on us. His wife Eileen said he had to “swallow his pride” and think about the greater good. According to Baroness Paisley, it was a hard struggle but Ian committed the matter to God and received a positive answer through a successful election.


My DUP source, however, suggested the change in approach to the Republic might be partly related to a Free Presbyterian Church project named Our Samaria. Ian Paisley is said to have met many people in the South: “He's always had that side to him.” The removal of articles 2 and 3 and other changes have helped. The Republic, in Paisley's eyes, according to my DUP source, has become a modern, liberal European nation no longer obsessed with Irish constitutional questions. Yet the mind boggles, given Paisley's perennial obsession with threats from across the border. But now, my DUP friend insists, the DUP's “entrenched majority” means they are driving the agenda. Many, including some friends, began their political/paramilitary career in the context of the Free Presbyterian Church and organisations like the Paisleyite Ulster Protestant Volunteers. They progressed into more militant groupings and spent years in prison. When they advocated a better way and suggested holding out hands of friendship to nationalists, they were denounced as communists, subversives, racketeers and gangsters. When they tried to prepare their people for change, they were told they faced defeat and Irish unity. After helping to undermine much of progressive loyalism, the DUP now settles like a cuckoo in the nest of those they have despised.