Ian Paisley: charismatic, chameleon or charlatan?

William Brown, a former ally of the DUP and Free Presbyterian church founder, on the man he knew

This book tells the story of my early acquaintance with the man whose influence on Northern Ireland’s religion and politics contributed to stimulating my personal ‘pilgrim’s progress’ from fundamentalist religion and ultra-conservative politics.

I came from a similar evangelical-fundamentalist background. My father was a street preacher of Plymouth Brethren stock and knew the up-and-coming young Paisley well. I therefore was aware of him from my boyhood when he was embarking on his public career. I especially remember my first encounter with the big and gangly young clergyman, when my mother took me to hear him speak at a rally of the National Union of Protestants (NUP) in downtown Belfast’s Wellington Hall.

As the leading speaker on that occasion, he delivered a thunderous oration to enthusiastic Ulster Protestants – a rally that might have ended in serious uproar when his angry audience mistook an interruption from the gallery for hostile heckling rather than the approving endorsement it was intended to be. Happily, the sagacious intervention of the chairman, Norman Porter, rescued the situation, not least the seriously discomfited Paisley.

Reflecting on Paisley’s oratorical power going back more than 70 years, I saw this as the shape of things to come and a major factor in his rise to political influence. I describe what I regard as some of his more impactful early speeches. One such was his sensational Maura Lyons oration at his ‘Monster Rally’ in the Ulster Hall in 1956, which purported to include the personal statement and ‘revelation’ of the under-age and still missing Catholic girl in whose illegal abduction Paisley became involved.


Another was his eye-opening sectarian rant to a Belfast shipyard lunchtime rally in 1959, in which he suggested that the only good Catholics were in Milltown (a Belfast cemetery). This was probably the first time a huge crowd of working-class loyalist men had encountered him, but it was that kind of inflammatory and terrifying oratory that would later inspire young militants like Gusty Spence, Billy Mitchell and David Ervine, to name but a few, to take up arms and fight ‘for God and Ulster,’ only to find themselves consequently serving long years in jail – all the while being denied and disowned by Paisley, whom they had once proudly regarded as their leader.

He could not deny Tommy McDowell, fatally electrocuted when attempting to bomb the Ballyshannon power station, and who is buried in the Free Presbyterian Churchyard in Kilkeel, Co Down.

As a teenager, I attended Paisley’s excitingly different Free Presbyterian services and soon came to know him well. I would occasionally act as his driver when he asked me to take him in my rickety little 1930s Austin Seven on missions that to me were secret, but which I had reason to believe were not of the kind normally associated with a clergyman. He once asked me to take him that night on an ‘important errand’ to downtown Belfast. I shall never forget the silent giant filling the back seat in the eerie darkness, the collar of his black greatcoat turned up around his ears, under a Homburg hat, an ensemble that seemed designed to conceal.

When we reached Belfast’s Shaftesbury Square, he instructed me to pull into the kerb. Suddenly a burly, moustachioed man of military bearing made his way to my car and opened the door without a word. He then struggled awkwardly to pull himself and his apparently stiff right leg into the narrow front seat. No greetings were exchanged as Paisley gave me a few clipped instructions as to where to go next. As we moved off, I broke the silence by asking my new passenger if his leg was painful, to which he replied that there was nothing wrong with him, loudly slapping his stiff leg and proudly announcing that he was Doctor Paisley’s bodyguard – a gesture that left little even to my innocent imagination and made things seem even more sinister.

A perhaps less significant but, for me, more memorable experience was of Paisley inviting me to preach my first sermon at the age of 18 in his father’s Independent Baptist Church in Ballymena. Both the Paisley parents, the doughty big Pastor Kyle, and his vivacious little wife Isabella, sat separately in the congregation, each following my every word and fixing me with an attention that I found a little unnerving. However, I think my sermon, which was designedly uncontroversial, was reasonably successful.

The occasion was a baptismal service arranged for three of my teenage friends who, although previously baptised as infants, were now to be re-baptised by immersion by Pastor Kyle Paisley, this being a condition of their possibly becoming members of Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church in Belfast. This practice was known as Anabaptism (re-baptism) and was one that was strongly opposed by the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith. Ian Paisley, who was a hybrid Baptist-Presbyterian, did not himself do baptism of any kind. He was a proxy Anabaptist who used his father’s Baptist Church facilities for that purpose - one of the many strange contradictions of his life. In fact, those contradictions are an important key to understanding Paisleyism.

Theologically an Anabaptist, he claimed to have ‘imbibed and believed to this day’ all his Baptist father had taught him. Yet for personal leadership-control reasons he adapted a bespoke Presbyterianism when, by conspiring to split the Crossgar Presbyterian Church in Co Down, he created his own Free Presbyterian Church in 1951, which he would later grow to more than 50 congregations.

As a separatist he built his own independent church. As an anti-Catholic, he believed the Pope was the Antichrist of the Bible, who was masterminding the final satanic delusion of these last days. He was vehement that most Protestant churches had apostasised (fallen away) in following a ‘Rome-ward trend’ and called on religious people to ‘come out from among them’ – and join with him. Although he said we were now in the throes of the final apostasy of the last days, he was a strong revivalist who gloried in the enlightenment of the Protestant Reformation and its sporadic evangelical revivals, not least that which he claimed his own evangelism continued to inspire. He failed to see the huge contradiction involved in our living through the final universal delusion of the dark age of Antichrist, which happened to be coeval with an age of enlightenment and evangelical revival.

My growing awareness of these things meant that I could never join with him. In my youth I had sometimes attended his church services because I was attracted to his robustly entertaining personality, and especially by his powerful and often outrageous oratory. This, however, would reveal too much of his inconsistency and extremism. He could be so incendiary in word and action as to cause civil strife, which eventually would combine with other flammable issues to ignite the 30 years of the Northern Ireland Troubles.

I was beginning to see that Paisley’s contradictory and often unpredictable personality, which Maurice Hayes presciently described as ‘at least six Ian Paisleys’, was centred on an enigma that could only be explained by an instrumental egotistic narcissism that was geared to his quest for political place and power. By turns he could wear the clerical collar and the paramilitary beret; at best his preaching had a huge deficiency of love, at worst an excess of hate; the Grand old Duke of York torn between war and peace. He was the charismatic self-styled prophet of the Lord who could also be the chameleon thespian, changing to play whatever role he thought would advance his cause. These fluctuations were such as might suggest that he was a charlatan, but thankfully in his last dramatic act he performed the greatest deed of his life in his amazing volte-face.

Some of Paisley’s followers worried about his political activities and believed that he should concentrate on his gospel preaching. Yet even in that respect he was an unorthodox ‘Presbyterian’ preacher, having much more in common with American ‘salesman-evangelism’ than with Presbyterian Calvinism. His fiery sermons would be followed by long and emotional altar-calls, when against the background of bowed heads and quiet hymn singing, he would call on potential penitents to raise their hands or stand up for Jesus.

His appeals, especially in the less formal atmosphere of a summer tent mission, were known to involve him coming down from the lectern and step in behind selected sinners to physically ‘oxter-cog’ or lift them up, compelling the reluctant penitent to stand up and be saved. These embarrassing altar-calls would be expanded to include demands on visitors to ‘come out from among their own apostate churches.’ Responses to these, voluntary or involuntary, were every one of them counted and widely publicised in his Revivalist magazine, with sensational claims of a ‘mighty work’ when 10, 20 or 30 or more souls were gloriously saved. These were often the instant conversions that Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’ – rather than the costly grace involved in the ongoing discipleship of following Jesus.

The late Rev Brian Kennaway, a staunch Presbyterian and Orange evangelical, regarded many of Paisley’s conversion claims as bogus or grossly exaggerated – ‘the work of a charlatan.’ He would not have been surprised that, bereft of the charismatic personality cult of Paisleyism, Free Presbyterianism is now in steep decline.

Paisley’s brand of religion and politics were symbiotic, in that his religion was political, and his politics was religious. Some have wondered how such an extreme ‘old-time religion’ fundamentalist – a strict and narrow separatist and Sabbatarian – could win the political support a largely secular electorate. In answering this it is necessary to unpack the concept of ‘religion,’ which is a cultural variable depending on the situation and use to which it is put. Even in its more obviously understood sense it can vary from the ethical and spiritual to the perverted and sectarian.

Emile Durkheim believed that religion could be deployed ‘as a sign, or a symbol of something else.’ It can be a substitute or support for other things such as in the struggle for politico-ethnic causes like Black emancipation in America, and the anti-Home Rule campaign in Ulster. Paisley could use religion in distinct and different ways. As the gospel preacher his religion was primarily of the salvationist kind, to which only a minority of his political supporters consciously subscribed. Most Ulster Protestants did not. But as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, which evolved from his sectarian Protestant Unionist Party, his chameleon-like religion could become ‘the sign or symbol of something else’ – his tribal, anti-Catholic, Protestant politics. It was this ‘something else’ kind of religio-politics that appealed to his DUP supporters, most of whom, like his militant loyalists, were not of the ‘born again’ kind.

It was the life-long vehemence of Paisley’s religio-political actions and words that made his ultimate volte-face in accepting power sharing and becoming First Minister so surprising to the wider world and staggering to his followers at home. As former top civil servant Sir Kenneth Bloomfield exclaimed, ‘He must have repented!’ It is significant that Paisley always stoutly denied this. He clearly delighted in being First Minister and regarded his bonhomie with Martin McGuinness and his acceptance of power-sharing as a case of ‘actions speaking louder than words.’

His actions were one thing, but as the Lord’s anointed prophet he now had to be careful with his words, to be consistent with what he had always claimed to be the unchanging word of God. Better to say nothing, or as little as possible about contentious matters! The Free Presbyterian Church could not buy it, and many members of the DUP were most unhappy. His wife regarded the power-sharing arrangements as ‘a necessary evil’. In fact, the best that many liberal pundits could say was that Paisley had done the right thing, but probably for the wrong reasons, viz., his desire to become the top man. His motivation was one thing, but as an octogenarian in failing health his leadership of church and party could not survive, and he soon had to resign from both positions. He was succeeded by Peter Robinson, who managed the change of leadership with his usual skill. But he too would soon retire.

Long after the Good Friday Agreement, the present state of the DUP, under its fourth leader since Paisley, seems very unsettled. At a time of uncertainty and possible change, this does not inspire confidence. The latest DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, was once a disciple and assistant to the Tory pariah Enoch Powell when he came over to become Unionist MP for South Down. Significantly, Donaldson, who regards Powell as ‘one of the greatest names in Unionism’, was a most vehement opponent of the Good Friday Agreement. Although at that time he was a senior Ulster Unionist on David Trimble’s team, he walked away from the negotiating table at the eleventh hour to become a major irritant to the beleaguered First Minister. He was then regarded by unionist colleagues as a Paisley fifth columnist before defecting to the DUP.

Given that most of the pro-Agreement unionists were lukewarm about it, regarding it as ‘the best they could get’, and that Donaldson’s new party would need another 10 years to accept what they saw as ‘a necessary evil,’ it is not hard to imagine what he really thinks of it. Bearing in mind his anti-Agreement and pro-Brexit baggage, he hardly inspires democratic confidence. One of his first acts as leader was to paralyse the Executive, creating an existential threat to the best political deed that Paisley ever did. This could lead us back to the past – to the pre-volte-face days of unreconstructed Paisleyism. The benefits of the Good Friday Agreement and of Paisley’s belated support for it must not be squandered.

Ian Paisley as I Knew Him raises questions about Northern Ireland’s progress from a dismal past to a hopefully brighter future. His American friend Bob Jones (whose reputedly racist university conferred an honorary doctorate on him in 1966), once described him as ‘a man from the past’. Jones meant that Paisley’s religio-political philosophy was substantively ultra-conservative and belonged to ‘another century’. Paisley was aggressively anti-modern in almost everything except in his skilful methodology. He was certainly passionate about ‘old-time’ fundamentalist religion and conservative politics – until his final extraordinary volte-face. This provided opportunity for movement away from that past toward a challenging future that could lead to peace and reconciliation.

Sadly, however, some aspects of anti-Agreement unionism persist within elements in the DUP, with subtle or not so subtle attempts to revivify the old pre-volte-face beliefs and attitudes. For that reason alone, the old Paisleyism needs critical examination. Ian Paisley as I Knew Him is more than just an interesting story. The reach of analytical history encourages us to reflect on things which people in earlier times could neither see nor understand. It enables us to operate from a different vantage point where, less encumbered by present pressures or, as St Augustine put it, by ‘the past in the present,’ we may have opportunity to free ourselves from traditional prejudice, populist politics and fundamentalist religion. Then we may be released not only to look forward, but to move forward.

Ian Paisley as I Knew Him is available from bookshops or directly from Beyond the Pale Books at beyondthepalebooks.com