By Jack Holland
Despite all the signs of recent progress in the North, with nearly everyone laying aside their ancient differences, those who felt threatened by the prospect of real change can rest assured: it can still be a weird place — rather retro, in fact, regardless of what you may read in trendy newspapers about the new day dawning bathed in the light of mutual respect for cultural differences, etc.
As evidence that some things never change, consider this little pamphlet which a friend in Belfast’s Linen Hall Library has just sent me. It is entitled, "Is There Room In Heaven For Billy Wright?"
We all know about heaven (our at least we think we do), but a few of our readers might not be too familiar with Billy Wright. Also known as King Rat, he was one of the most feared loyalist assassins in the Troubles, ranking up there with the Shankill Road Butcher and Captain Black. He was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force until about 1996 when, disgusted at its involvement in the peace process, he left and formed the Loyalist Volunteer Force. Arrested and convicted of threatening a witness, he was imprisoned in The Maze, where a few days after Christmas 1997, the Irish National Liberation Army shot him dead.
As a UVF activist, he was one of those who helped give the nickname "Murder Triangle" to the North Armagh-East Tyrone area. It would not be an exaggeration to say that King Rat was responsible for a reign of terror. His victims included old-age pensioners and pregnant women, some slaughtered in their beds and in front of their children.
Some readers might think that showing up at the Pearly Gates with such a C.V. would be a pretty fruitless exercise. However, what they do not understand is the nature of "salvation" — Ulster-style.
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The anonymous author of the pamphlet is replying to another Evangelical, Dr. Clifford Smyth, who waxed indignant in The Belfast Telegraph at the suggestion that Wright could claim to be "a follower of Jesus Christ while carrying a gun."
According to the pamphlet, the idea that you must be a pacifist to enter heaven is palpably absurd.
"If Billy Wright had lived in Londonderry in 1688 and had taken up a musket to defend the walls, would he have lost his salvation?" the pamphleteer asks with incredulity.
He continues: "If Billy Wright had lived in 1912 and helped to run guns for Carson’s UVF, would he have lost his salvation?
"If Billy Wright had lived in 1916 and fought for Britain at the Somme and killed the German foe, would he have lost his salvation?
"If Billy Wright had lived in 1939-45, joined the RAF and flew with Bomber Harris [in whose honor a statue stands in London] when Dresden was bombed killing thousands of German non-combatants, civilian women and children, would he have lost his salvation?
"The answer clearly is no."
The author quotes scripture to prove that being "saved" and being a killer are not mutually exclusive. He writes that "Joshua would hardly make it in" to heaven "having exterminated the inhabitants of Jericho. . . . The prophets Samuel and Elijah, who hacked their opponents into pieces, would be disqualified."
As far as the pamphleteer is concerned, it is not a big leap from Joshua and the Prophets to the murderous activities of King Rat. Slaughtering people is clearly no obstacle to getting through those pearly gates. But the argument goes further.
Billy Wright, it seems, cannot be denied entrance to heaven, regardless of what he did, because he has been "saved." It happened, according to the pamphlet, "one day in 1983" when Billy realized "his need for a Savior and, repenting of his sins, accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior. . . . Billy Wright’s salvation did not depend on what he did or did not do, but rather on what Christ had done for him."
In other words, King Rat’s "salvation" gave him a carte blanche to do as he pleased, kill whomever he liked, and still know that he would go straight to heaven. I ask myself why it is that more criminals, mass murderers and despots don’t avail themselves of this very convenient option? "Salvation" is a kind of insurance policy.
The evangelical pamphleteer is downright proud of Billy.
"Had the Roman Catholic/republican community produced a man of the caliber of Billy Wright," he said, "there would have been no honor too great to heap upon him."
The pamphlet ends with a vision of King Rat sitting next to the Son of God:
"His testimony is sealed in blood and one glorious day he will rule and reign with the Lord Jesus in the countless ages of eternity, shining in the images of the first begotten Son."
That is, not only is there room for Billy Wright in heaven, but it seems he has taken over the entire place, if we are to believe King Rat’s evangelical supporter.
This pamphlet is a reminder that the Bible Belt extends all the way from Texas northeast to Portadown, Ballymena, and Larne. I’m told that it was actually produced in the Portadown area, in North Armagh, one of the homelands of hard-core loyalism, the birthplace of both the Orange Order and the LVF. Not surprisingly, it is also an area where Paisleyite fundamentalism has strong support. Such weird mixtures of religion, politics and murder might bring into question the sanity of many of the people who exhibit them. However, they are probably sane — at least in the technical sense.
Sammy and Marty
The wit and wisdom of the Northern Ireland assembly continues to astonish all who witness this "new day for Ireland," as one weary hack put it. Sammy Wilson is chair of the committee whose task it is to oversee the Ministry of Education, of which Martin McGuinness is the minister.
Sammy is a member of the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and a former teacher. He has the reputation for being something of a wit. Recently, in the assembly, he assert that the minister’s new "three Rs" to be "writing, reading and armalites."
He has to be careful though. Quite a few remember a certain "home video" he made on holiday in France with his girlfriend where they were filmed romping naked among the grapevines. Perhaps our wee Sammy was just practicing being a "free" Presbyterian.