Ian Paisley’s words as deadly as weapons

Despite his ultimate conversion, perhaps opportunistic, to the principles of democracy, Ian Paisley’s hate-filled rhetoric left a trail of dead bodies in its wake. TP O’Mahony reviews a mixed legacy.

THE Rev Ian Paisley was the embodiment of a phenomenon that regularly provides headlines today, primarily because of the volatile and bloody situation in the Middle East — political religion that is extremist in language, precept and form.

Through the agency of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, which he established on 17 March 1951, Paisley harnessed religion to the political ideology of hardline, fundamentalist unionism, with far-reaching repercussions for Northern Ireland.

In his book Paisley: Man of Wrath, Patrick Marrinan described the breakaway from mainstream Presbyterianism on St Patrick’s Day 1951 as follows: “An event had occurred which for those concerned was as momentous as Luther’s public burning of the Pope’s edict of excommunication at Wittenburg. It certainly was to have the most dire consequences for the truncated Province of Ulster.”

The newly-founded Church was to promote a virulent form of anti-Catholicism, demonising the Pope as the “anti-Christ” and opposing all and every manifestation of ecumenism. It was “free” in the sense that it was no longer subject to any oversight from the mainstream Presbyterian Church.

Paisley was later to create another vehicle for the dissemination of a sectarian politico-religious ideology — a newspaper called the Protestant Telegraph which he established in February 1966. The poisonous propaganda that spewed from its pages was a contributory factor to Ed Moloney’s conclusion in his book A Secret History of the IRA that Paisley was a “Protestant leader whose agitation paved the way for the birth and growth of the Provisional IRA”.

In the process, Paisley became a reminder, a very potent reminder, that politicised religion, which many tend to associate exclusively with the Islamic world, also has Christian roots. Using the Bible to foment hatred of another Christian tradition, convincing Protestant sectarian killers that God is on their side, is something that finds a frightening parallel in the perverted use that the Isis killers make of the Koran in Syria and Iraq today (barbarically illustrated by the heading on video of a third hostage, David Haines, last weekend) .

None of this is to deny the presence of a murderous sectarianism with politico-religious roots on the nationalist side throughout the Troubles, even if that side lacked a firebrand evangelical preacher of the stature of Paisley. The latter, nevertheless, did his best to cast Tomas O Fiaich in that role. When O Fiaich, who had been President of Maynooth College, was appointed Archbishop of Armagh in October 1977, in succession to Cardinal William Conway, he found himself at the centre of controversy two months later when, in the course of an interview with the Irish Press, he said: “I believe the British should withdraw from Ireland. I think it is the only thing that will get things moving.”

It was a comment that provoked Paisley into dubbing him “the IRA’s bishop from Crossmaglen”. Paisley saw the IRA as “the armed wing of the Roman Catholic Church”.

Leaders of the mainstream Christian Church in the North have always been uneasy with any depiction of the Troubles as a religious war, or even as a war with a religious dimension. Yet the subject-matter of Martin Dillon’s book — God and the Gun: The Church and Irish Terrorism — is sufficient to remove any doubt that extremist political religion was (and remains) an Irish phenomenon every bit as destructive as the perverted Islam of al-Qaeda or Boko Haram or Isis.

I first encountered Paisley on one of his anti-Roman crusades in the university town of Uppsala in Sweden in June 1968 where I was covering the month-long Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) for the Irish Press. For the first time since the WCC was founded in 1948, the Vatican had decided to send official observers. This was just three years after the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and its Decree on Ecumenism had given a new impetus to the quest for Christian unity. The presence of Vatican observers was further proof of this.

In addition, two years previously an event took place which had incensed Paisley: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Michael Ramsey, representing the Church of England (of which the Queen is supreme governor) had travelled to Rome for an historic meeting with Pope Paul VI.

PAISLEY and a small group of followers arrived in Uppsala 1968, brandishing Union Jacks, in what was the first of a series of extraterritorial “anti-Papist” protests culminating in the haranguing of Pope John Paul II during the latter’s visit to the European Parliament in 1988.

Paisley may have thundered like an Old Testament prophet, but the message he megaphoned was for too long one of division and hate.

In her book The Mighty & The Almighty (a look at religion in world affairs), Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State during the Clinton presidency, wrote: “We had better accept that the world is filled with political Muslims, political Christians, political Jews, and political people of every other faith. It is no crime to have a political agenda. It is a crime, however, to act on a violent and lawless one”.

If the IRA acted on one such agenda, the men incited to take up the gun by Paisley’s biblically-tinged condemnations, demonisations and exhortations acted on another.

As we struggle to comprehend the religiously-fuelled hatreds that so bedevil the Middle East, we need look no further than Belfast in the period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s for clues as to how different tribes of people claiming allegiance to a benevolent God can end up incubating murderous hate for each other.

In an interview with John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4 just short of his 84th birthday, Paisley was asked the how he could now be friends with Martin McGuinness: “I believe God can change people.” If Christianity once brought out the worst in Ian Paisley, we have to acknowledge that in the end, it brought out the best in him.

That said, any attempt to airbrush the early Paisley out of history would do a great disservice to those people who died as a result of the bitterly sectarian political religion he espoused so passionately for so many years.

It is no excuse to point to the presence of a “green” sectarianism on the other side, and certainly no exoneration for the undoubted harm done by Paisley’s evangelical fervour mustered in support of a deadly anti-Catholicism. When asked in that same BBC 4 interview if the Troubles would have been shorter and lives saved if he had stopped saying “No” earlier and had lent his support to the peace process, Paisley said he didn’t accept that. “Repentance was needed.” Yes, but a more all-encompassing repentance than he had in mind.

Ian Paisley’s legacy is a very mixed one, and there is a very dark side to it. Of him it could be said: “You may not have carried a gun, but your words were certainly weapons!” Did he, I wonder, in his old age, ask himself, in the manner of WB Yeats, if words of his had sent out men to kill?

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