Category: Archive

A View North Paisley words, deeds set stage for violence

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

A reader from the United Kingdom recently e-mailed me questioning an assertion I had made in a column a few weeks ago about the links between loyalist paramilitary groups and the Rev. Ian Paisley. He asserted that far from being associated with these terrorists, Paisley has always condemned their violence.

The truth is that Paisley has always done both. He has associated with Protestant extremists and he has condemned their violence. It is a neat trick which he has been practicing since the mid-1960s.

Paisley has never been charged with a serious criminal offense. He has never spent more than two months in jail. There has never been any evidence, as far we know, that has linked Paisley himself to violent crimes. Yet, in the minds of most people, both Protestant and Catholic, in Ireland — and possibly also in Britain — Paisley’s name is constantly associated with violence and the men of violence. A Unionist prime minister publicly accused him of being linked to the UVF.

What follows is a selection of the more notorious instances when Paisley has been linked to dangerous elements.

The context for Paisley’s association with loyalist extremists has been his anti-Catholic rhetoric. Since the 1950s, when he founded the Free Presbyterian Church, inspired by the fundamentalist belief that the Church of Rome was the Anti-Christ, Paisley has unleashed a torrent of verbal abuse, a mixture of sexual innuendo and Biblical bombast. He commonly characterized the Catholic Church as the Great Whore of Babylon. The revulsion at Catholicism was combined with a paranoid fear that Ulster Protestants were targets of sinister Catholic plots aimed at destroying Northern Ireland and making it part of the Republic of Ireland, which to Free Presbyterians was the same as being under the rule of Rome. After all, Home rule was Rome rule.

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The first violence to which Paisley’s name is linked occurred in October 1964, and it established a pattern that would always be associated with him. During the Westminster general election, he discovered that the Republican Clubs, the cover name for Sinn Fein, were flying an Irish flag from their electoral office in Divis Street, at the foot of the Falls Road. If the police did not tear it down, he would do it himself. The police removed the flag, but it was replaced. When they returned, a vicious riot erupted. It was the first serious riot in Belfast since the 1930s. During the fighting, Paisley was nowhere to be seen. For the next 30 years, the pattern of Paisley stirring up trouble, then disappearing or dissociating himself from it, would be repeated.

The only time he was actually seen performing a violence act was early the following year, when he and a group of his followers threw snowballs at the car of Irish Taoiseach Sean Lemass as he arrived for a meeting with the Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O’Neill at Stormont.

More seriously, in June 1966, Paisley with a mob hurled abused at the governor of Northern Ireland, Lord Erskine, as he attended a meeting of the General Assembly, the governing body of the Presbyterian Church. O’Neill attacked Paisleyism for what he called its "tendencies towards Nazism and fascism."

That same year that tendency was strengthen by the formation of two Paisleyite organizations: the Ulster Constitutional Defense Committee and the paramilitary Ulster Protestant Volunteers. Also in 1966, the Ulster Volunteer Force came into being. All three were linked and Paisley drew closer to violence of a more serious kind, thanks to his associates.

The UCDC/UPV headquarters in Belfast was used to store illegal weapons, which Paisley discovered. Though he ordered them removed, he did not report the find to the RUC.

In 1966, the UVF killed three people, including a Catholic teenage bartender, Peter Ward. One of those convicted of his murder, Hugh McClean, told the police: "I am terribly sorry I ever heard tell of that man Paisley or decided to follow him. I am definitely ashamed of myself to be in such a position."

Mr. McClean died in prison.

Prime Minister O’Neill publicly accused Paisley of having links to the UVF. Paisley denied it. But subsequent events would reveal that the UPV and the UVF had overlapping membership.

The UPV’s main purpose was to put bully-boys on the streets during counter-demonstrations against the growing civil rights movement’s protest marches. In 1968, Paisley and his followers seized the center of Armagh, and blocked a planned civil rights march. For this he was arrested and imprisoned for six weeks.

In March 1969, after a series of loyalist explosions against public utility installations, O’Neill resigned. A year later, Sam Stevenson was charged and convicted in connection with one of the bombings. He was a member of Paisley’s UPV and of the Free Presbyterian Church.

In August 1969, Paisley was on the Shankill Road when the riots erupted that brought the city to the edge of chaos. He did not take part in the fighting but was "held back" by a couple of women, much to the disgust of the rioters. According to one, who later became prominent in the UDA, Protestants were saying: "You started this thing, and then where were you when we needed you?"

Thomas McDowell, who blew himself up in October 1969 while trying to destroy an electricity installation in Ballyshannon, was a UPV member and belonged to the Free Presbyterian church. He was also in the UVF.

In the following decade, Paisley associated with the UDA. Among its members he mixed with were John McKeague, the founder of the Red Hand Commandos, and Andy Tyrie, the UDA’s chairman. In September 1973, he gave the funeral oration at the grave of assassinated UDA leader Tommy Herron.

In 1974 he was on the organizing committee that brought down the first power-sharing government, on which prominent loyalist paramilitaries also sat.

In May 1977, he backed the UDA in an attempt to repeat this success.

At this time, the UDA was one of the most violent organizations in Ireland, responsible for hundreds of sectarian murders.

During the following decade, the UDA and the UVF kept their distance from Paisley, who went on to set up another paramilitary-style group, the Third Force" which quickly vanished. But in July 1996, Free Presbyterian preacher and prominent DUP member the Rev. William McCrea spoke on the same platform as the founder of the Loyalist Volunteer Force, Billy "King Rat" Wright, a man involved in dozens of killings. As far as is known, Paisley did not dissociate himself from McCrea’s action.

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