Irish Times Obituary: Rev Ian Paisley

Preacher man, agitator, dealmaker: the many faces of Ian Richard Kyle Paisley

September 12th, 2014: Patsy McGarry reflects on the long and tumultuous career of the Rev Ian Paisley


The career of the Rev Ian Paisley, who has died aged 88, arced from origins as fiery preacher and street agitator, through decades when his harassment helped undermine mainstream unionist leaders who attempted compromise with nationalists.

But aged 81 he won praise inside and outside Ireland and made global headlines for sharing the top post in a peacetime Stormont with former IRA leader Martin McGuinness. His image collapsed once more after lengthy and vindictive 2014 television interviews with journalist Eamonn Mallie, his last public platform, when he denigrated his successors as leaders of the party and church he founded.

In his long prime, he preached with more drama than any contemporary in the western world, and devoted abundant talent to relentless negativity. When IRA violence might have brought wide sympathy for unionism, many in Britain and other countries knew of only one Northern Ireland politician, certainly only one unionist, and considered Paisley a byword for antiquated prejudice. He took that as a tribute.

In the years preceding the Troubles his coat-trailing demonstrations and sectarian rhetoric made him a menacing and destabilising figure to most Catholics, and a considerable section of Protestants. He told his people they were doomed, and he was their only hope. But he topped every European election he fought, taking nearly 60 per cent of the unionist vote in 1984, which entitled him to call himself the voice of Protestant Ulster.

The phenomenon that was Ian Paisley goes a long way to explaining Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble’s struggle to establish a pragmatic unionism capable of negotiating the future of Northern Ireland, and the weakness of Paisley’s own successor Peter Robinson.

In 1964, five years before the Troubles proper broke out, he provoked the worst riot Belfast had seen in almost 40 years. One official report into the 1969 street clashes said he must “bear heavy responsibility for the disorder”. Another said his “exaggeration, scurrility and abuse” must have been “among the factors increasing tension.” Over 30 years he raised at least a dozen “third forces” to “crush the enemies of Ulster”, while indignantly denying responsibility for the violence of loyalist paramilitaries.

In the Mallie interviews he laughed off the suggestion that he must carry blame for riots and their consequences in injuries and jail sentences. “The people who rioted have to pay for that,” he said. “Not me.”

As the Troubles erupted Margaret Thatcher’s ally Willie Whitelaw, the first NI secretary, said of Paisley that he “can effectively destroy and obstruct, but he has never seemed able to act constructively.” He was jailed twice for disorderly conduct, claimed to be proud to go to prison for his beliefs, but tirelessly, and successfully, lobbied the unionist prime ministers Terence O’Neill and James Chichester-Clark for an amnesty so that he could travel to the United States to preach.

As well as fomenting mistrust and prejudice he was always capable of tender, uplifting oratory. The sermon he preached at the funeral of Esther Gibson, one of the 29 killed by the Real IRA bombing in Omagh, and a relative of a DUP Assembly member, is quoted in Lost Lives, the chronicle of Troubles deaths. She had the name, he said, of “a great Bible queen, Queen Esther of the Jews”. She had been preparing for her marriage by prayer, and with quiet pleasure. Then “Into the great sea of grief Omagh and its people have been cruelly hurled. Today we feel for them all.”

The victims came from families of several different faiths. “Let me say in this house of God all their tears are the same.”

But 38 years ago he crouched in his pulpit to imitate a man who had written an unflattering book about him and was then maimed in a car crash. “God withered the arm that wrote against me,” he bellowed, finger pointing skywards. “Thou shalt not touch the man of God.”

He evoked laughter as easily as fear and had a gift for relating to people at all levels, superlative electioneering technique – during his last campaign seizing the hand of an 80 year old woman on a Portadown street who told him it was her birthday to sing her a raucous “Happy Birthday” – and until late in life showed off a near-photographic memory.

Dominant Ulster unionism disdained him at the start of his political life, O’Neill accusing him of fascism, and he formed his Democratic Unionists to force O’Neill away from “concessions” to the civil rights campaign. It took more than 30 years to displace the UUP as the leading party. A one-time close associate remarked that “Paisley’s first thought each morning for decades has been ‘how can I damage the UUs today’.”

Leader for life of his own church and party, a warm family man and shameless bully, he was a man of glaring contradictions who damned the shifts of others.

Evangelical family

Born in April 1926 into a devoutly evangelical family in Armagh where his father Kyle was a Baptist pastor, Ian Richard Kyle grew to be 6 foot 3 inches tall with a powerful voice and learned to preach in a tiny evangelical college in Wales run by a friend of his father’s. He was ordained by his father, and in due course ordained his own son, Kyle, twin to Ian junior.

His Scottish mother Isabella and his family’s puritanical habits kept him and his brother distant from others and contemporaries recalled him stammering when asked a question in class. In middle age he wrote that after tuition by an ex-boxer on the Welsh streets he turned a crowd against a young woman heckler. “They started to laugh and sneer at her and she mumbled and stuttered. I prayed Lord give me a weapon that will turn as a boomerang in the face of the Devil, and God gave me the answer.”

From his first tiny congregation in Belfast’s Ravenhill Road – which had left the main Presbyterian church some years before – he went on to create the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, never sizeable but seen as a threat by mainstream Presbyterianism. Ed Moloney and Andy Pollak’s biography (Paisley, Blackstaff 1986), still by far the most comprehensive and incisive, notes that having become Free Presbyterian general secretary within a few years then moderator for life, he was also the star turn in tours of American evangelists and Irish and Italian ex-priests who celebrated stage masses.

He also began to agitate on the fringes of unionism. His first overtly political rally under the banner of “Ulster Protestant Action” was at Belfast’s shipyard in 1959, to protest against a ban on an Orange march through the small Catholic town of Dungiven, near Derry. “There are no nationalist areas in Northern Ireland. If necessary the Protestants in the Queen’s Island will go to Dungiven and march behind the Union Jack.”

The then NI prime minister, the hardline Lord Brookeborough, explained later that he had feared a Dungiven march might create sympathy for the flagging IRA “Border” campaign. But Paisley helped dispel any Protestant awareness that Catholics might at last be resigned to the Northern Ireland state. “Come ye out and be ye separate” was a favourite text. His appeal to the mob unnerved Catholics, and under-cut the reformist instincts of Brookeborough’s successor, Captain Terence O’Neill.

His street following began to influence official decisions, like his threat to remove a Tricolour from the Falls Road election office of republican Billy McMillen if the government did not order the RUC to do it, an action which in 1964 brought the worst Belfast riots since the 1940s.

Two years later he secured heavier policing for the Belfast 50th commemoration of the Easter Rising by calling a counter-march – already a favourite technique. In June the same year, riots between residents and police in the Catholic Cromac Square followed his parade to the Presybterian General Assembly to insult emerging dignitaries including the governor of Northern Ireland and his wife, Lord and Lady Erskine – who became visibly distressed and ill. Many unionists were shocked and embarrassed.

O’Neill and the Presbyterian Moderator compared Paisleyism to fascism. He was convicted of unlawful assembly and taken to Crumlin Road jail, which brought further rioting. In the same month a tiny group calling itself the Ulster Volunteer Force killed three people, 77-year-old Protestant Martha Gould burned in her Shankill road home by a petrol bomb meant for the Catholic-owned pub next door, and two young Catholics, John Scullion and Peter Ward, shot as they walked home from pubs.

An editorial in the Belfast Telegraph, a strong supporter of O’Neill’s attempts at reform, said Protestants “can have nothing to do with those who have been sowing dragon’s teeth, and can now see how terrible the harvest can be. Ulster is in danger of being thrown back into a dark past by sectarian forces which have too long been winked at by many who should know better.”

O’Neill’s government banned the UVF. Several of those arrested were Free Presbyterians and belonged to groups linked with Paisley. He denied any connection and for decades thereafter threatened legal action against anyone who suggested he had paramilitary associations, but the shadow delayed his party’s growth.

When in 1968 Paisley led cudgel-wielding men by night to occupy the centre of Armagh, to provoke a ban on a civil rights march, he and a colleague were given six-month jail sentences. Paisley preached that he welcomed this “martyrdom” but cabinet papers eventually revealed that after calls from him ministers spent hours discussing how to ensure that the jail sentence did not bar him from getting a US visa, or lose his jailed colleague his teaching post.

The US gospel circuit lent him American verve and salesmanship, like instantly taped sermons, but his message was always a dire warning: that both union and Protestantism were in danger, that a single step towards political reform or Christian ecumenism would start an irrevocable slide. Former devotees told Moloney and Pollak: “He’s referred to as God’s man, a prophet among us.” Moloney and Pollak noted that the idea his prophesies might “be self-fulfilling never occurs to his most devoted supporters.”


He claimed vindication even when particular disasters failed to materialise. That merely meant his warnings had worked, as when the united Ireland he claimed O’Neill was leading towards failed to happen.

In the 1970s, a Protestant minister recalled that he had asked IRA leader Dáithí Ó Conaill if it was true that the IRA wanted to kill Paisley. Ó Conaill told him “there’s no way we would kill Ian Paisley . . . he’s the best recruiting sergeant we’ve got.” When Paisley said Protestants would take the law into their own hands, said Ó Conaill, “a chill goes down the spine of every Catholic in west Belfast. And after that we have no trouble getting volunteers, safe houses and money.”

Whitelaw in his memoirs recalled Paisley lobbying him in 1973 to reprieve a loyalist sentenced to death for the murder of a policeman, Constable Gordon Harron. Paisley, “the militant Protestant, demanded a reprieve for this ‘good Protestant’ and threatened dire consequences if I did not oblige.” Shortly afterwards, Whitelaw reprieved a Catholic convicted for an IRA murder, then moved legislation to end the NI death penalty so that he faced no further such demands.

Individual loyalists sometimes expressed support for him, others maintained he blew hot and cold. In 1974, with the rest of political unionism, he sat down with the UDA and other paramilitary groups in the Ulster Workers’ Council to run a “workers” strike, during which loyalist bombs killed 33 in Dublin and Monaghan. The following year Paisley condemned loyalist violence, yet two years later tried to run another strike with UDA muscle. He promised to leave politics if the 1977 strike failed but when it did blustered through reminders.

In the mid-80s, Paisley and Robinson appeared wearing paratrooper-style red berets in front of ranks of uniformed men at the inaugural rallies of Ulster Resistance. Several members were subsequently charged with conspiring to sell British missile secrets in exchange for guns to the apartheid South African regime. The arrest of a leading UDA man with a sizeable weapons consignment, alleged to be in part bound for Ulster Resistance, preceded the discovery of a dump containing a bible and red berets as well as arms. Paisley and Robinson swiftly said they had disavowed the group some time previously.

The former senior Catholic civil servant Maurice Hayes wrote about working with him in Stormont assembly in the mid-80s: “I have often thought there are about six Paisleys. Two of them are very nice people, two quite awful and the other two could go either way.”

By mid-Troubles it was clear that Protestant attitudes to him fell into three categories: those who revered him, those who disliked him but thought of him as a useful Rottweiler, and more middle class and establishment types who considered him irresponsible, sectarian and above all vulgar.

When clerical child abuse had yet to be uncovered, Paisley entertained congregations with his trip to Rome to “dung out the Beast”, fantasies about sexual shenanigans between priests and nuns, and jibes at popes; John XXIII was “man of Satan, man of sin” as he marched to Belfast’s City Hall to protest against the Union Jack lowered on its flagpole to mark John’s death.

His style was imitated from the inflammatory preachers of the 19th century, Roaring Hugh Hanna and Henry Cooke prime among them. “Come ye out and be ye separate” was the text that underpinned his crusades. Clergy who urged cross-community friendship were “ecumaniacs.”

The noisy campaign to “Save Ulster from Sodomy” that he led with Robinson against liberalisation of laws on homosexuality in 1977 led the Catholic hierarchy to make their own objections with no publicity.

His pulpit and political rhetoric merged. When Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985, he preached: “We hand her over to the devil that she might learn not to blaspheme. O God, we pray this night that Thou wouldst deal with the prime minister of our country. O God in wrath take vengeance upon this wicked, treacherous, lying woman.”

Of the joint government Framework Document in 1995 he said: “The document is already stinking. It is like the body of Lazarus after four days in his bed and it is stinking.”

When the loyalist paramilitary groups called a ceasefire in the wake of the IRA’s, Paisley and the DUP showed support instead for the splinters who continued their violence, Paisley jeering about “good” paramilitaries who won praise from governments. In the hours before the 1998 Agreement was signed, he arrived late at night to the Stormont talks building to denounce the prospect of compromise. He was surrounded by supporters of the loyalist paramilitary “fringe” parties who backed the Agreement, shouting “‘Dinosaur” at him.

PUP leader David Ervine had to quieten the crowd so that Paisley could hold a press conference.

Late conversion

The late turnaround began to emerge when the DUP remained in the early peace process, though at arm’s length from Sinn Féin, rather than walk away into irrelevance. But when his party decisively displaced the Ulster Unionists electorally, Paisley began to move towards a deal he could now dominate. If he had led a walkout the new Stormont structures would have collapsed. Instead he chaired committees, while continuing to berate “Trembling Trimble” for “conceding” powersharing.

According to Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s point-man in negotiation, it was electoral triumph on top of Paisley’s first brush with mortality in 2004 (months during which he fumbled for words and appeared physically very frail), which finally pushed him to make a deal.

“After his close encounter with death, and even more so once elected leader of unionism,” Powell wrote, Paisley was determined to bring about a lasting peace, “often leaving himself isolated. He paid a price in his party and his church for doing so.”

When in March 2007 he sat in front of television cameras beside Gerry Adams with only the corner of a table between them, and smiled beside McGuinness once the two of them were nominated to head the Stormont executive, some unionists thought it a positive move but many were shaken.

Within two years party and church pushed him to retire, encouraged by signs that his mental agility and fabled articulacy vocabulary were failing. But by overturning his own lifetime of opposition to compromise with nationalists, he had under-pinned the relaunch of powersharing with the republicans he had vowed to “smash” with the solidity of his rumbustious personality.

It topped a record of intransigence with a veneer of agreeableness few could have imagined even five years earlier. Paisley delivered in his 80th year. His long-time deputy Peter Robinson might have wanted agreement, but needed the charisma of the bigger man, “the Doc”, to brazen out the deal.

He agreed to be First Minister of Stormont with ex-IRA leader McGuinness as Deputy First Minister with a shamelessness as total as that of mainstream republicans. He bettered them, to his own mind, by grinning happily alongside McGuinness while frequently referring to him as “the deputy”, an almost casual attempt to convey the impression that he was in fact a prime minister, the republican his subordinate.

But there had been none of the Adams/McGuinness leadership’s painstaking preparation of their people for the climbdown of a limited devolved assembly.

He resigned as First Minister and leader of the party, and after an interval gave up the church Moderatorship. Later again he preached his last sermon, and said he was retiring to write his memoirs, which would “make some laugh and others blush.”

The closest he came were barbed columns in the Belfast, Protestant daily, the Newsletter, which began to reveal his true feelings about retirement. When the new leader and his wife Iris came under fire for exorbitant Westminster expenses the year after the Paisley departure, followed by scandal over an affair between Iris and a 19-year-old youth, a Newsletter piece said “Icarus” had flown too high.

As he left the Martyrs Memorial pulpit in December 2011, after 70 years as minister, he laughingly promised that the public had not seen the last of him. “I’ll be crowing just as much as ever,” he told UTV. MP and deputy leader Nigel Dodds told UTV he didn’t think Paisley would “ever truly retire”. The Mallie programmes revealed that the Paisley family then boycotted the church, Baroness Paisley saying he had been “assassinated.” The Paisleys ridiculed Dodds, once Paisley’s aide in Europe, as “the Mighty Dodds.” They were cattier still about the Robinsons’ mishaps, Paisley chortling that his wife loved him.

He made his name attacking unionist leaders. The 2014 interviews demonstrated that, supported ably by his wife, he had lost none of his penchant for nastiness. Tellingly, the couple failed to see how they damaged themselves. At the end of his life it appeared that Paisley’s main motivation had not been the good of Protestant Ulster, but his own ego.

In frail health in recent months, he died today aged 88.

He is survived by his wife Eileen, Baroness Paisley of St George’s, and their children Sharon, Rhonda, Cherith and twins Kyle and Ian.

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