A look at the Rev Ian Paisley
THE CHURCH of the Martyrs in Ravenhill Road, Belfast may possess some features of architectural interest. I didn't know, and cared less, as I tagged along at the end of the line of worshippers, endeavouring to look like a Protestant in need of spiritud guidance.
I was just on time for the' Rev. Ian Paisley's evening service, but I seemed to have coincided with his biggest audience ever, as a result of which I was routed into an overflow chamber-one of severalwhere modern loudspeakers brought to one's ears what was hidden from the eyes. I discovered, with some gratifying self-mockery at its irony, that my inexperience was to be placed in its proper context: around me sat small children and their mothers, mostly families of stewards., As the service progressed, the wails of the infants seemed occasionally to answer the thrilling notes from the loudspeaker.
The reason for overflow was clear enough: Dr. Paisley, recently elected at Bannside, had taken his seat in Stormont during the previous week. No doubt the circumstances had excited the attention of the curious, but there seemed more to it than that. It had been argued that election to Parliament might clip the Paisley wings to the extent of respectabilising him: it may be that the respectabilisation has taken place, but that the wings are stronger for it. Quite apart from his politics, Dr. Paisley's Free Presbyterian church has been drawing converts who for one reason or another are dissatisfied with their present pastors. This is not necessarily connected with the harlot' of Rome: Dr. Paisley offers a high quality of preaching. In fact, my experience in his temple of worship was to leave me with the conviction that his congregation gets good value for their donations, both in energy and in quality of pastoral preaching. But now there is another factor. Let us suppose that, by some upheaval, a parish priest has been elected to the Dail: it is a reasonable guess that his audience might well be augmented in
the aftermath of his election and, if the visitors were not disappointed, the new arrivals might decide to become constant attenders. It would be surprising to me if visitors on this particular Sunday were disappointed.
I was on the watch for any sign of Dr. Paisley's recent interest in the underprivileged, but there was little indication of it, either in audience or content of sermon. His large car park was crammed fuller than any I have ever seen. If some giant child-a not unnatural fancy in this context-had been playing with real motor cars as one of our own children play with toy ones, and had packed three hundred of them, door to boot, bumper to engine, side to front, in order to achieve the maximum use of available space, the result would have approximated to the scene in the car park. And, for all of my ignorance of the things, it was plain even to me that these were almost entirely new and fairly expensive models, comfortable, well-appointed, occasionally ornate. The clothing of the congregation may have been "Sunday best", but it paralleled the car scene.
The children, whom I had all too much opportunity to witness, were also well dressed, and on the whole well behaved. But two hours is a long time, and in a very few cases the sound of Dr. Paisley's voice on the Wrath of the Lord clearly excited some apprehension in the minds of the young. At these moments, mothers would fail to retain control, but, almost miraculously, the door would open, and a charmingly smiling youth, who at other times dispensed the collection plate and was evidently one of Dr. Paisley's sons, would enter and take over the junior ministry. His rapport was magnificent: the generation gap must have been at least a dozen years in most instances, but it has seldom been less of a barrier. It was also interesting to note that none of the mothers revealed anything more than moderate anxiety that their children not prove a nuisance. The higher echelons of the U.V.F. and its allies may reveal serious cases of mental disturbance, but Dr. Paisley's own congregation revealed little sign of frustration or maladjustment. A more cheerful atmosphere could not have been found in the nursery of any church.
Meanwhile, we were listening in to the word from the loudspeaker. His Reverence was in good voice, and had, as is apparently his custom, divided his service into a welcoming speech, some texts, and a theological homily. We began with what sounded like a report from the chairman of the Rev. Ian Paisley, M.P., Ltd. He noted that certain of his immediate neighbours had deplored his presence: well, they could always move out, and, as the overflow crowd indicated, he needed to buy their land in any case. There were some jocular references to outsiders attacking "us Paisleyites". It sounded a little like a rally for the first wearers of the miniskirt: the audience seemed adjured to find themselves daring, swinging and slightly in advance of the fashion. It also produced the cosiness of a good in-group; I recall similar selfcongratulation at meetings of the John Birch Society where the allocution was prefaced with giggling references to these being some of those awful secret meetings of which the press was always writing.
His Reverence was in jocular vein initially, but even there was in a mood to deal harshly with the press. It struck me that the seed might be being dropped on remarkably receptive ground, in this instance. Most people have consciously or subconsciously worked up a considerable dislike of the press by Sunday afternoon, whether from the preachiness of the Observer and the News of the W orid or the waving of luxuries far beyond the ordinary reach in the Sunday Times. It was gratifying to hear Dr. Paisley dispose of their pretentions. It appeared that he had given a short maiden speech at Stormont in order to annoy the press, which had expected him to give a long one. Having amused us with exchanges of this nature, and frivolously suggested he was in the process of converting Gerry Fitt, he had a receptive audience the next time he turned to the theme of the press, which he did in his theological ruminations. The press, it appeared, resembled the opponents of John the Baptist and the worldlings who scoffed at Noah. In a word, before it knew where it was, the press would be all wet.
This was more or less standard, and I awaited some indication of new directions with impatience. There were signs that His Reverence had embarked on a new phase at Bannside. His remarks on the bad social conditions within the constituency led one to wonder whether he W;1S not going to break his ancient rule of not agitating social questions -possibly in view of the conservatism of his British financial backers. It might be, of course, that he felt himself immune from future pressures in this direction. For one thing, he must be wealthy enough to stand on his own feet by now. For another, as his speech of welcome suggested, success was paying its own dividends -he mentioned four cheques for £50 in the previous week-and he could afford to assume that his angels would have to take him in his own terms.
There was also the factor to be considered that his British backers would be far from social emphases in the Northern Ireland context. But in fact his exhortations had little to do with the hungry and thirsty, outside of the spiritual wants. Instead, we were invited to contemplate the diet and mode of apparel of John the Baptist-no untimely reminder for many of the congregation-and the circumstances concerning Salome's individual talents which so rightly caused finishing schools to be looked on with a dubious eye during the latter part of the Tiberian imperiate. John the Baptist had considerable relevance to what I took to be a far more important theme of the Bannside campaign: the Rev. Dr. Paisley himself. The parallel was left to the audience to make, but it was left in little doubt that Major HerodAntipas and Captain Pontius O'Pilate had viewed the straight thinking and strong language of the prophet with little enthusiasm. Noah, it appeared, had a similar experience. Dr. Paisley was not seeking absolute identification: at one point he specifically placed himself below the ranks of these servants of God. But those that had ears to hear had loudspeakers at their disposal.
Some public interest had been excited by Dr. Paisley's statement on his Bannside victory that no Roman Catholic need fear the name of Paisley. He embroidered on this theme during his theological remarks. Rome, he adjured us, was a delusion and a snare, and in making a wellchosen comparison between the Wrath of Man-horrifying enough, he felt, and he spoke with authority -and the Wrath of God-infinitely greater; he adjured us-we received some reflections on the late Herr Hitler, at one time of the Roman Catholic persuasion, and the Spanish Inquisition, of whom his mention was almost charitable in its restraint. But for individual Catholics he entertained no hatred: this was old stuff, but what followed was not. Up to that point he adhered to his American teachers' "some of my best friends. . ." but now he entered on a new argument. A number of Roman Catholics had shaken his hand at Bannside, stated that they would never vote for him, but that they respected him as an honest man who said where he stood. He now wished to pay them the same compliment. One man had stated that he was a Roman Catholic and could never become a Protestant; he -elicited the converse information from Dr Paisley (laughter). But His Reverence wished to stress to us that it was right that men' should recognise each other in these situations. If we had Roman Catholic neighbours, we should remember that Christ had said "love your neighbours" and be true neighbours to them. I found myself wondering how many ministers and priests-of any religion-had said anything remotely like this in Northern Ireland that Sunday.
What he could not stand, he averred, were the ecumenists, who were neither Catholic nor Protestant. This undesirable category embraced a large area of humanity from Major Chichester-Clark in his fabled marble hall to Mr. John Hume who was described as a blasphemer. At this point I began suddenly to think of the parish priest whose utterances I had I
been listening to earlier in the day.
A remarkable similarity was creeping into Dr. Paisley's discourse. There was a fine Redemptorist lost in that man, I began to feel. As His Reverence proceeded, the similarity grew greater. His intense dislike of the paganisation of British society began to make itself manifest. We were a beleagured fortress, but if we put our trust in God and Dr. Paisley, we would and must vanquish our enemies. The Unionist party had forgotten God. At this stage some earlier references to the prophet Malachi began to assume relevance. Malachi, of whom His Reverence spoke in exceptionally warm, if slightly vague, terms, was the last prophet for four hundred years until John the Baptist arrived. I wondered whether the Northern Ireland Malachi was supposedly the Rev. Dr. Henry Cooke or the Rev. Hugh ("Roaring") Hanna.
Certainly nothing more recent than Sir James Craig was likely to win his enthusiasm. As he charmingly and somewhat maliciously pointed out, the Unionist party had thrown everything against him: Lord Brookeborough, Captain L. P. S. Orr, M.P. in all of his Orange regalia, Major Chichester-Clark, Henry Clark, M.P. and a' teddy bear. (The teddy bear was given by his opponent's daughter to his opponent in a good-luck gesture on the eve of election: Dr Paisley was perfectly correct in noting that as artillery it emerged subsequent to Lord Brookeborough and other lesser guns.) He had, he assured us, been somewhat hard-pressed by the teddy bear, but had vanquished him. Lord Brookeborough he apparently ate before breakfast.
We now enter a somewh'lt theological arena. Miss Mary Holland of The Observer has gone on record as finding' Dr. Paisley a Calvinist, and devoted to the principle of predestination. I cannot endorse her finding. Apart from some suspicion as to his genuineness, my impression of his preachments is of a faith exhibiting considerably more hope for the sinner than Calvinism. We are all damned, he asserts, himself included, were it not for the mercy of God. That God has His justifiable Wrath he avers very strongly. But if we individually come to God and put our sinful souls in His keeping, all may yet be well. Further than that he did not go, but the whole thing savoured of a much freer faith than Calvinism. The final ceremony arising from his discourse was rather moving. We were all adjured to close our eyes and pray, and anyone who wished to signal his desire to repent should lift his hand, unperceived by all save Dr. Paisley and the stewards. To judge from his remarks, several people did so. Wh'at I liked was the way in which at this moment the voice 'which had been raised, sometimes to a bellow-and he 'raises and lowers his voice too consciously and doesn't bellow well - now became soft and warm. Behind one's closed eyes one had the impression of men sinking in a sea, and this owner of the comforting voice stretching out a hand which raised the drowning. Best of all, he was at his most self-effacing -although self-consCiously so. "You who have raised your hands will meet the Preacher afterwards. But remember-the Preacher cannot save you. Only God can save you. And you yourselves have now taken the first step. And those of you who have not raised your hands may still find God if you acknowledge yourselves sinners and turn to him." One was left with a glorious sense of power and peace. I am told that hashish has a similar effect.
A few points on the service remained in my mind. I had no doubt that the Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley thoroughly deserved his titles. His discourse had lasted two hours; it was learned without being unduly pretentious; it was clearly self-dependent, in a way that institutionally-based clergymen seldom can produce. I was also left with the sense that he put an enormous amount of personal work into a complicated church governance, as far as notices and such detail revealed. On top of numerous meetings with selectmen, he has now added renewed campaigns in Bannside: the new M.P. has no intention of imitating his predecessor's absentee record, except, as he observed in a notable departure from Christian charity, as far as representing the 'interests of that predecessor are concerned.
If all this be taken in conjunction with his previous record, one is left with certain curious conclusions about Dr. Paisley. Whether he means what he says or not, the whole logic of his arguments is against the British connection in which he so strongly professes to believe. In the best fashion of an American Right-wing antiestablishmentarian, he will maintain that the major institutions of Britain are under the control of the Devil and the Pope (of Rome). The B.B.c. has gone Papist; so has The Times; so has the :presbyterian Church of Scotland; and it is only a matter of time before Archbishp Ramsey appears in a Cardinal's hat. But beyond this, there is clearly something even more urgent to his followers, if not . to him, to wit the extent and success of secularisation. In this connection he is at one with the most rigid doctrinaires among Irish parish priests. It is more than logical that he should find kinship in anti-ecumenical Catholics. It is not impossible that such a relationship may produce its own ecumenism. Dr. Paisley may very well reflect the spirit which gave rise to the recent talks, or to the rumour of recent talks, between the I.R.A. and the U.V.F.: and certainly recent outrages suggest co-operation from those gentlemen. More specifically, the presence of British troops, and the acknowledged existence of an unpalatable British diktat determining the politics and policies of Northern Ireland-and Dr. Paisley denounced Major Chichester-Clark in his sermon for lying on this one-exacerbate anti-British feeling. It may not be insignificant that he spoke of recent visits from Rhodesia.
How middle class is he?
One critical question that must emerge in any new assessment of Dr. Paisley is, how middle-class is he? As a constituency leader, perhaps not, but as a pastor, he increasingly becomes so. My friend and colleague Fergus Pyle, of the Irish Times, has suggested to me that the Northern Ireland middle class have in fact much in common with their counterparts in the South, with the additional assurance in the event of a United Ireland that their dislikes will not be further whetted by Government action in the way that they are currently by a Socialist, abortion-enacting, homosexual-protecting regime at Westminster. It is arguable that the fifty-year indifference of Westminster to Northern Ireland blinded UlsterUnionists to the magnitude of their diversity from the British experience. In this day of reckoning, they may very well wish to think again.
Class polarisation in Northern Ireland seems inevitable on the Protestant side.
Just as the Catholics had to break from their ghetto and overthrow their ghetto lords, so the Protestants had to dispose of their archaisms, even at the cost of adopting new ones. Dr. Paisley ran well against Captain O'Neill at the last Bannside election by exploiting the Anglican-Presbyterian split in the constituency. On this occasion he seems to have aimed for and achieved, something more. Instead of merely capitalising on local dislike of Anglicanism, he escalated his antiO'Neill campaign into an assault on the entire Unionist establishment, for which he was given ample justification by the Unionist establishment's descent on the constituency in support of the pathetic official nominee. Dr. Paisley did not run against Dr. Minford so much as against Major Chichester-Clark, and the big house, broad acres, condescending manner and archaic feudalism which the Major is unable to conceal.
In taking this stand, he was also profiting from a strong feeling among Ulster Protestants that they were surrounded by establishments. The Unionist party had answered the deficiency in terms of the Anglican-Presbyterian split by the nomination of Dr. Minford, a Presbyterian, but the logic was now too late. Dr. Paisley was more of a figure, Pasileyism had grown stronger, and, it may be, the Protestant dislike of centres of power had grown stronger still. Centres of power had, after all, lauded the British connection and promised omnipotence and then proved unable to resist the pressures of a Westminster Labour government. In this connection the Presbyterian establishment, of which the Minfords are members, had proved as vulnerable a target as the Anglican establishment. In theological and political as wcll as social and economic tcrms, Dr. Paisley spoke for the havc-nots.
The weakest Sancho Panza
In South Antrim the situation was even more naked, if possible, but some additional factors reinforced the plausibility of Paisleyism. Poor Dr. Beattie is perhaps the weakest Sancho Panza with whom Dr. Paisley has ever lumbered himself-and no doubt Dr Paisley is aware of the fact-but the nomination of the discredited William Morgan was a ludicrous piece of Unionist folie de grandeur, apparently on the principle that the party could still elect a horse, if need be, as M.P. in a Unionist 'constituency. Another significant factor, in symbolism as well as in result, was the candidacy of young Mr. Corkey as an independent Unionist. Mr. Corkey belongs to a family which, at an earlier date in the history of Northern Ireland, was at the head of a powerful and influential Protestant pressure-group. That group lived in terms of issues, and cared little for personality success. It has now been squeezed into oblivion, partly by the emergence of a more dramatic and more political group under Dr. Paisley, partly by its absorption by the Unionist political apparatus, and panly by its having outrun its span of historical time.
It is not surprising that a younger representative of the family, like so many American political families when they lost power, should have emerged on the barricades among the ranks of the progressive conservative rebels. The Corkey campaign was a lesson to Dr Paisley as to how much the stage had been cleared for him in his confrontation with the Unionists.
Now that he is in, it seems probable that he is preparoo. to wait, somewhat noisily, for events to shape themselves in his favour. The Unionist government is committed, irrevocably, to reform in housing and local government. The rebellion of the party machine on these matters may very well force a more radical split in Unionist parliamentary party ranks than anything seen hitherto, and the Chichester-Clark government, shorn of its right-wing support, may be reduced to living by courtesy of the Opposition. This in itself will be initially to the Opposition's advantage, but on a long-term basis could prove corrosive of confidence, and it might well be advised to seek coalition under an accredited ecumenical spokesman such as Phelim O'Neill instead of the recently-converted Major Chichester-Clark. Dissident Unionists would be forced to accept alliance with Dr. Paisley, and to do so on his terms. Figures such as the absurd Captain John Brooke, currently spoken of as Major ChichesterClarkc's successor when (not if) he is dethroncd, will be hard put to know which way to go. Mr. Brian Faulkner, who conspicuously bet on the wrong horse of liberalism and then found himself faced with a revival of sectarianism, will be lett in a peculiarly wretched position.
It is Mr. Pyle's contention that the Paislcyite lack of enthusiasm for Britain may well lead to far more forcible assault on the Westminster seats during the general election on a scale greater than anything we have seen hitherto. Once Dr Paisley was prepared to talk terms with the Unionists as to whether he would risk splitting the Protestan( vote in critical areas or not. Today, he may prove far more indifferent. He has already talked of seeking Henry Clark's seat in North Antrim, and has expressed a hope for the elimination of Mr. Robin Chichester-Clark in Londonderry. In fact, neither of these seats are likely to fall to his storm-troopers, and he already holds South Antrim, since Sir Knox Cunningham's affections for him are secure. But in South Down, where he might be glad to revenge himself on Captain L.P.S. Orr, for the latter's campaign against him in Bannside, interesting results could ensue. Captain Orr's seat is not safe, and the near-successful campaign of Mr. Fergus Woods for part of the same area in the Stormont elections suggests that the People's Democracy would be well advised to seck his adoption by an all-party alliance. The same point would apply whether or not the Paisleyites decide to contest Fermanagh - S. Tyrone, where the Marquis of Hamilton is, and more than richly deserves to be, in a vulnerable position. Here another allparty alliance candidate seems possible: Mr. Bowes Egan, the brilliant author of Burntollet. Already, the People's Democracy have learned that elections bring out recruits as does nothing else. They may also be well advised to learn from Dr. Paisley that in revolutionary as in conventional politics, nothing succeeds like success. And, whatever one's individual views of him, there is a vast deal to be learned from Dr. Paisley, politically as well as theologically.