The Second Coming of Paisley. Militant Fundamentalism and Ulster Politics, Richard Lawrence Jordan
In claiming Paisley’s extraordinary volte face was based in theology, Jordan shows a poor understanding of Northern politics and Irish history
The Second Coming of Paisley: Militant Fundamentalism and Ulster Politics
Richard Lawrence Jordan
Syracuse University Press
Understanding the change in Ian Paisley has thrown even the most astute commentators off course. How did the demagogue whose constant rant was: “Never! Never! Never!” end up guffawing for the photographers on an Ikea sofa with Martin McGuinness? Writing in 2000, David McKittrick, who knows more about Northern Irish politics than most, confidently stated that the DUP leader, then in his 70s, would “never” make a deal. Seven years later, as first minister and Deputy First Minister of a power-sharing executive, the DUP leader and the former IRA commander were dubbed “the Chuckle Brothers”.
The best depiction of this extraordinary volte face is the cartoon by Ian Knox. This shows Paisley as a young man, who threw snowballs at Sean Lemass when he came to Stormont to visit Terence O’Neill in 1965, snowballing old man Paisley on his way into the building with Sinn Féin.
Many have argued in recent years that Paisley has emerged as a ruthless opportunist, whose driving force all along was not righteousness, as he claimed, but the desire for power. In wrecking the efforts of others he was simply clearing a path for himself. Now Richard Lawrence Jordan claims to have discovered the answer in theology.
The grim cover, a preacher’s white dogcollar on a glossy black background, a muddle of typefaces, sets up a foreboding. The book, unfortunately, delivers us not from it. The acknowledgements are carried under the title “The World of Academia” and appear to contain a few jabs at those who did not help.
Even the best academic dissertations often struggle to make the transition into readable books. Jordan labours hard at his complicated thesis, and repeatedly boasts its originality, but presents no credible evidence to back it up. The book will confuse readers with no grounding in Protestant theology and will frustrate those who do. It also ignores the fact that “God’s man for Ulster” was an emotional revivalist who never let the rigours of theological doctrine stand in his way.
There are two parts to Jordan’s argument. First, that the young Paisley learned his militant religious fundamentalism through contacts with the American Christian right, and that this was Calvinistic and “pre-millennial”, politicised only insofar as it allowed for protest against evil in the public space. (Based on an obscure reference in the Book of Revelations, pre-millennialism is based on belief in the Elect, preparation for the End Times, and, ushering in the new millennium, the Second Coming. Only through the grace of God could sinners be saved from their inherent depravity.) Second, that Paisley’s fundamentalism underwent an “eschatological transition” which led to him being converted into “amillennial” political activism and latterly peacemaking.
Jordan admits that Paisley himself has never articulated this alleged change to his “theological underpinnings.” This would surely be strange, given the man’s extreme self-righteousness. The theology is muddled. Calvin dismissed premillennialism as being unworthy of refutation. Paisley has never abandoned it. Yet Paisley, whose father served in Carson’s UVF, has been a political activist since he was saved at his mother’s knee at the precocious age of six in 1932. His politics and his preaching were intertwined, his aggressive modus operandi in both spheres the cultivation of schisms and of the dread of impending apocalypse. Paisley never became an amillenialist – and in any case amillenialism is simply a term to describe a view that does not believe in an earthly millennium, and is largely apolitical.
Jordan claims that his book is the first to examine the relationship between Paisley and militant evangelical fundamentalists in the US in the period immediately predating the outbreak of the Northern Irish Troubles in the late 1960s. In fact, this relationship has been extensively discussed, by, in particular, Dennis Cooke in Persecuting Zeal, as well as Ed Moloney and Andy Pollak in their 1986 biography, Moloney in his 2007 sequel, and by Steve Bruce. Indeed, Bruce has been taken to task by William Brown in his study of Orangeism for exaggerating the role of evangelicalism in unionist politics. Jordan similarly exaggerates the role of American fundamentalism in the development of the young Paisley. Brown argues that far from regarding Paisley as one of their young disciples, the US fundamentalists looked up to him. Until they fell out, that is. Fundamentalists are quarrelsome folk.
Jordan is at his most interesting when he contradicts his own thesis. He provides good examples of the overt political activism of the US fundamentalists, and shows the convergence of views on communism, apostasy, ecumenism and Roman Catholicism, between Paisley and US segregationists such as the Reverend Carl McIntyre. He describes the mutual admiration which existed between Paisley and outrageous bigots like Lester Maddox, elected governor of Georgia in 1966, two years after he chased African-Americans from his restaurant in Alabama with pick-axe handles and hand guns. Paisley reprinted his speeches in the Protestant Telegraph.
Threat to Protestantism
He notes that Paisley was on a speaking tour in the southern states of the US in 1968, and spoke at a Bible conference at Bob Jones University two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, but did not mention the murder nor its violent aftermath. Instead he focused on the threat to Protestantism in the US as in Ulster. (Back home, Paisley continually ignored loyalist violence when denouncing republican outrages.) He mentions men with wonderfully apt names, such as Bob Doom.
Jordan does not discuss Paisley’s use of Ecclesiastes in his inaugural speech as first minister, though it is surely of interest: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven . . . A time to kill and a time to heal . . . A time to love and a time to hate. A time of war and a time of peace.”
He quotes the Reverend Ivan Foster, a former disciple, who denounced Paisley for his change of heart, but ignores the fact that what Foster deplores is not that Paisley betrayed his premillenialism by engaging in politics – far from it – but for his decision to share power with “the godfathers of IRA murder and terror”.
There is a carelessness to this book that suggests a lack of local knowledge about Northern Ireland. Even its biggest fans would not describe Ballymena as a city. Crude chunks of history are poorly integrated. The book compares Paisley with other “political dissidents” including Éamonn de Valera and Michael Collins, in that he “accepted power when offered it”. It ends with pious words about the sincerity of Paisley’s religiosity, and his contribution to peace.
Susan McKay is the author of Northern Protestants - An Unsettled People (Blackstaff) and Bear in Mind These Dead (Faber). She is a former Northern editor of the Sunday Tribune