Pope’s visit gives pause for thought for Paisley’s children

Protestants must reassess Paisleyism and his bizarre anti-papist rhetoric

Rev Ian Paisley: how strange that so many people were so recently led by a man of such antique obsessions.

Rev Ian Paisley: how strange that so many people were so recently led by a man of such antique obsessions.

 

On Monday, as a papal visit to Armagh in 2018 was unofficially revealed, reporters across Northern Ireland were tasked with a nostalgic mission – find a Protestant or unionist to object.

They had to go back to Ian Paisley’s old church in east Belfast to strike lucky. Rev Ian Brown of the Martyrs Memorial said he would hold a peaceful protest, as did his retired Free Presbyterian colleague Rev David McIlveen, who added that he respected the right of Catholics to a “pastoral visit”.

Otherwise, everyone fell over themselves to welcome His Holiness across the Border. Conservatives even felt they saw an ally. The Belfast Telegraph, in an editorial plus a column by its editor, looked forward to “Christian churches finding common ground as they come under attack from so-called ‘progressives’”.

The sourest response was from the office of Arlene Foster, which said: “Any potential visit to Northern Ireland by the pope is a matter for the foreign and commonwealth office in London. Were the pope to visit Northern Ireland in his capacity as head of state then the First Minister would meet him [translation: we didn’t invite him and won’t be meeting him in his capacity as the antiChrist].”

It is inconceivable that Foster has a personal problem with Rome, however. The reticence of her office is another vestigial tail of Paisleyism and the bizarre, almost-vanished world of his anti-papist rhetoric.

Antique obsessions

Strictly speaking, Paisley was only the leader of unionism for a few years a decade ago. But for 30 years before that, he was certainly a leader of unionism. How strange that so many people were so recently led by a man of such antique obsessions. During the Troubles, the would-be wise would say “of course, it’s got nothing to do with religion”. Yet for Paisley it really was about religion, and he made it about the pope on every possible occasion.

By exploiting or causing other tensions of the time, he built a following, few of whom cared to dwell on the theological details. They told themselves they were following an uncompromising unionist. But Paisley was always clear that the union was a mere means to an end, protecting Protestantism from the Vatican. He was a proud Irishman, as he informed Bertie Ahern in 2007, when he presumably felt the southern threat had receded. More tellingly, in 1982, he objected to Pope John Paul II visiting Northern Ireland while touring the UK because it would be “letting him in through the back door”. From a unionist perspective, of course, that would have been letting him in through the front door. Paisley protested against Pope Benedict’s 2010 visit to Britain for the same reason.

By that point, picketing the pope was considered rather quaint. Since Paisley’s death in 2014, Paisleyism has disappeared so completely it is as if it never happened – or so unionists now tell themselves. It takes reporters on a mission to remind them this is still a lens through which they are seen.

Welcoming the 2018 papal visit, Dr John Dunlop, a former Presbyterian moderator, said it would be a chance for the Protestant community to “get over institutionalised anti-Catholicism”.

This was a good thought but not quite the right words. Protestants got over their anti-Catholicism far too easily. They need to go back and confront their acquiescence to a man whose sectarian passions would have bemused a Tudor monarch.

Laughed at bigotry

How was this accepted so readily? As one of what David McWilliams would doubtless call “Paisley’s children”, the mechanism I best recall was ridicule. Most Protestants, including most of Paisley’s followers, laughed his bigotry off. It was a joke – literally. “Paisley and the pope” jokes were a staple of my childhood.

There was also straightforward denial. Unionists looked on Paisley’s anti-Catholicism much like republicans look on Sinn Fein’s leftism – an indulgence bolted on to a nationalist position, rather than its basis.

Those most directly involved – Free Presbyterians, for example – rationalised their anti-Romanism as saving Catholics from the pope. I once saw Paisley pray for this in person at a sermon in Portadown. It was his version of cherishing all the children of the nation equally.

Protestants were above all simply ignorant of what the pope meant to his followers. How much could he mean, when Paisley’s followers had decided his anti-Romanism meant so little?

Catholic fervour in Ireland has dimmed since huge crowds greeted Pope John Paul II in 1979. Francis’s visit may not be on the scale that forces Paisley’s children to reflect on their past. Still, religious intolerance cannot be blithely swapped for political aloofness, as Foster’s statement tries to do.

Diplomatic protocol requires a head of state to visit via the capital city, and Francis will visit Armagh via Dublin. The pope is coming in through an Irish front door.

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