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A Profile of the "Ballymena Bull": The Rev. Ian Paisley

Posted March 25th, 2011 at 05:15 AM by Gile na Gile

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During a press conference after his failed 'NO' campaign against the Good Friday Agreement, the Rev. Ian Paisley turned to an RTE journalist and told him to 'shut up'. Was the outward breach of manners a symptom of more volatile inner stirrings? Had his famously unshakeable self-belief been undermined by the modern tide of consensual politics? Did the sight of other Unionist leaders signing up to the Mitchell principles cast doubt on his own entrenched brand of loyalism?

Whatever the answers are to these questions and despite the insistence of many liberal commentators in the south of dismissing Paisley as a hopeless anachronism, subsequent events have demonstrated that he has lost neither his taste for conflict nor his long-standing support from the loyalist right. His 36% share of the vote in the Forum elections in North Antrim - the rural heartland of fundamentalist Ulster Protestantism - was second only to First Minister David Trimble. It was a result which had seemingly vindicated the firebrand preacher, serving as a telling reminder to those who judged his intransigence a form of fatalism utterly divorced from the wishes of the electorate.

Founder and Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church, leader of the DUP, member of the European Parliament and now duly elected member of the Norther Ireland assembly, his list of duties would cripple a man half his age. Some regard his energy as divinely inspired. "He is a man raised by god in Ulster's hour of need", enthused one supporter.

In fact, Paisley enjoys a fanatical almost cultish devotion from his followers.
Born on the 6th April 1926 to a Scots mother and a separatist baptist preacher, Richard Ian Kyle Paisley, he has followed a long line of evangelical preachers. Before him his father and grandfather were long-serving District Masters with staunch loyalist credentials. His home town, Ballymena, was in the 1920's strongly Presbyterian with proudly puritan roots inherited from Scotland.

As a young man he worked on the farm of family friends at Sixmilecross, Co. Tyrone and later as a lathe operator in a light engineering company. He studied at the Barry School of Evangelism in South Wales and the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Belfast where he was a prizewinner for each of his three years. Ordained at 20, he returned to Ballymena, where folklore has it he would practice voice projection in the mountains of Mourne.

Religious training aside, it his perhaps his parents who have had the greatest influence on 'Big Ian'. His father Kyle served in Carson's UVF during the bitterly contested Home Rule campaign of 1912-13. It was a service which Ian would, 70 yrs later, still recount with pride while showing visitors the bandolier his father carried in those days along with the rifle he trained with.

His mother too was a hugely influential figure. An abrasive woman with rigid puritan beliefs, a quick temper and a fondness for bringing arguments to a head, she was deeply involved in the activities of her local church at Hill Street, Ballymena. On one occasion she tried to get the girls choir dismissed for wearing their hair short, in the current bobbed fashion - in contravention to St. Paul's admonition that women should never be 'shorn or shaven'.

Paisley still recalls a sermon given by his mother over 50 yrs ago about the good shephard and the 'little lost sheep'. After the service young Ian remained behind and told her, "I don't want to be a lost sheep, I want to be a saved lamb". They knelt down at a pew in the church and "at that spot I found Jesus Christ as my saviour and Lord", he later recalled. Recently, when the church was being renovated, Paisley asked for and was given that pew - it now adorns the front hall of his home in East Belfast.

With such a background it was little wonder that the budding preacher soon became a controversial agitative figure. In 1951, in what has become known as the 'Crossgar Split' he broke away with a small group of disenchanted Presbyterians to form the Free Presbyterian Church - becoming its figurehead for the next half century. The Reformed Presbyterians were known as Covenantors because of their uncompromising adherence to the Scottish Covenant of the 1640's which bound the puritan parliament of England and Scotland to rule 'in accordance with God's will'. They followed to the letter St. Paul's warning not to have any dealings with unbelievers however Christian they may claim to be, "Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing". It could well have been the dictum which shaped Paisley's political career. His uncompromising bullish approach personified for many the intense sectarianism of the Troubles.

In the mid 80's for example the Anglo-Irish Agreement gave the Irish government for the first time a say in Northern affairs. Paisley, in typically emotive language warned a volatile Belfast crowd (which included amongst its various hues of Unionism ranks of young toughs clad in the combat jacket of the UDA) "that there was a battle for the very freedom of Ulster by rule from a foreign hostile power".

Molyneaux, McCartney and other more liberal Unionists have always recognised the political kudos to be gained by association with the larger than life firebrand preacher who can so quickly create a siege mentality among working-class Protestants. During the civil rights protests of the 60's, the 'Paisleyites' (who at the time had adopted much military paraphernalia) proved it was possible to have marches cancelled by organising counterdemonstrations. In many cases in fact the RUC halted the Nationalists instead of Paisley and his followers. He also took to the streets (an action which ironically enough has seen him in Her Majesty's custody several times) to protest against what he called the dangers of O' Neillism'.

In a TV broadcast he claimed that O'Neill had broken his word on the question of the Northern Ireland Constitution - having said he would never meet a southern leader until the south recognised the north as a separate entity. Instead, according to Paisley, he smuggled Lemass into Stormont; a man who had taken part in the 1916 rebellion and whose hands are stained with 'the blood of our kith and kin'. Such references, couched in highly provocative rhetoric, has exposed Paisley to accusations of being too eager at times to provide ideological fodder for the loyalist paramilitaries.

His taste for confrontation, however, was not confined to the political arena. In 1963 he led 1,000 members of the National Union of Protestants in a protest against what he called "the dying eulogies now being paid to the Roman anti-Christ by non-Romanist church leaders in defiance of their own historical church". Essentially, his complaint was against a disagreeable ecumenism which he perceived to be bringing about a degree of convergence among the various Christian beliefs.

Indeed, a virulent anti-papacy is a recurrent theme in the life of the DUP leader. In a remarkable outburst, no doubt with an eye on the shifting demographics of the North, he once accused Roman Catholics of "copulating like rabbits and breeding vermin". More sensationally perhaps was the famous controversy where he charged the Pope and a Cardinal (Leo Josef Suenens) of not being Christian at all. Both were, he alleged, "masters of a heathen temple where atavistic rites, all with sexual undertones, took the place of religion". The latter had presided over a Catholic theological congress in Brussels where it was alleged Catholics took part in black magic rituals which included the worship of "gigantic phalluses".

He also joined forces with his wife Eileen (who once stood unsuccessfully for election to the Belfast corporation) in protest at the lowering of the flag over City Hall as a mark of respect at the death of Pope John XXII. His daughter Rhonda also dabbled with politics, evidently inheriting the strong convictions of her father. Now a 40 yr old vegan artist living at home, she once shared the Belfast majority with Sammy Wilson in the 80's but resigned the post, sickened by what she described as the 'blatant sexism' within.

Despite their prominence home for the Paisley's is a modest three-storey detached Victorian house fitted with necessary security features. In the living room there is a portrait of Paisley proudly flanked by the Lambeg drums of Ulster. He is partial to Westerns, Indian cuisine and his favourite writer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that great apologist for British imperialism, Rudyard Kipling. Oliver Cromwell is his hero and it is said that every time the Reverend enters the House of Commons he salutes the statue of the Lord Protector.

However, it is images of the 'Ballymena Bull' stomping the cobblestones of Downing Street at the head of a posse of placard wavers, storming out of TV studios or being ejected from the European Parliament (as he once was for insulting the Pope) which ensure that Paisley will continue to exude a surreal, if not buffoonish quality. At his best though he is a passionate and indefatigable representative of many thousands of his fellow Ulsterman. The subject of four biographies he is revered by those who follow his creed. One prominent DUP member once said; "He is the greatest living Ulsterman his heart beats with mine, the same blood courses through my veins".

A powerful orator, a bully, even a tourist attraction, his placed in Northern politics is perhaps best captured by the old loyalist who tells us; "You see that dog barking in the yard. Now I hate that dog but I feel a lot safer for having him there".
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  1. Old Comment
    General Michael Collins's Avatar
    Fantastic piece Gile, and very well written.
    Posted April 1st, 2011 at 11:20 AM by General Michael Collins General Michael Collins is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Gile na Gile's Avatar
    Cheers GM.

    Have to confess it's not exactly fresh off the press - I think I wrote this in 1998 - and it's been gathering dust in my hard drive ever since. I had just finished a postgrad in journalism and was trying to flog it everywhere but I didn't get any takers, alas.
    Posted April 2nd, 2011 at 10:15 AM by Gile na Gile Gile na Gile is offline
 

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