By Jack Holland
The Rev. Ian Kyle Paisley was the first visitor to the burned-out home of the Quinn family in Ballymoney. He stood in the morning drizzle, a cloth cap on his head, staring at the blackened shell of the house where three young boys were burned to death by loyalist petrol bombers in the wee hours of July 12th. It was a mournful scene and the big man himself was stooped and pallid looking.
No one should be surprised at Paisley’s visit. First of all, Ballymoney is part of his Antrim constituency, which he has represented at Westminster since 1970. Nor would anyone who knows Paisley be surprised that he should have been among the first to condemn the attack, even though, a short time later, he was down at Drumcree with the Orange brethren encouraging them to continue the protest which many believe created the situation that led to the Ballymoney murders. Later, he remarked that republicans had committed far worse acts of terrorism against Protestants.
That has always been Paisley’s way since he first stood up on a soap box to fulminate against the evils of Popery and republicanism. His words and others’ deeds are two separate things, or so he insists. So far, he has succeeded in keeping a legal distance between them, if not a moral one.
Paisley’s large shadow has loomed over Northern Ireland for more than 30 years. His voice has reverberated down its streets and laneways, decade after decade, castigating, mocking, provoking, ridiculing, hectoring, bullying, threatening. Just days before the three Quinn brothers died, he threatened that the 13th would be the “settling day” for the Drumcree crisis, just as, years before, he warned that Terence O’Neill had opened the gates of Ulster to communists and republicans, that Maggie Thatcher had sold-out Protestants, that David Trimble was a traitor for signing up to the Belfast Agreement. Always ominous words, with never a hint of reassurance, never a suggestion that anything other than doom awaits Ulster unless Protestants prepare themselves to resist change and refuse compromise.
It is a message which has had over the years a powerful appeal to many Ulster Protestants. When I was growing up in Belfast, it was common to see painted on gable walls in the Protestant streets “Prepare to Meet Thy Doom” slogans. Doom and the threat of doom gave meaning to their lives, or at least definition. They certainly give meaning to Paisley’s politics — in so far as what Paisley practices can be called “politics”.
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In one sense Paisley is like John Hume. Neither he nor Hume are politicians in the ordinary sense. They are more like visionaries. The startling difference is, of course, in the nature of their vision. Hume’s has from the start been based on a belief that even in beleaguered Northern Ireland it is possible to construct a consensus on what people, both Nationalist and Unionist, had in common with each other. Paisley’s vision is the opposite — it is fundamentally dualistic. The world is divided between those who are loyal to Ulster and those who are not. Or it can be expressed in fundamentalist theological terms as a division between those who have seen the light of Free Presbyterianism with everybody else cast into the outer darkness. The darkest regions are reserved for Roman Catholics, who serve the Great Harlot of Rome, “drunk with the wine of fornication,” as he once put it in an unforgettable phrase.
Dualistic visions appeal because of their simplistic nature — the world is seen in terms of good vs. evil. There are no subtleties. Such visions with their violent overtones tend to attract unstable people. Over the years, Paisley has gathered around him a collection of unsavory types, including quite a number of violent homosexuals and pedophiles, which might seem curious for someone who led the Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign back in the 1980s when the British government threatened to apply its liberalization of homosexual legislation to Northern Ireland.
In fact, it is not a contradiction, given the inherently patriarchal and misogynistic world of Protestant fundamentalism that Paisley and his followers inhabit. It is no accident that Paisley describes the enemy, the Catholic church, in sexual terms, depicting it as a temptress, whose seductions have to be resisted. His world is one without pleasure, a place of never ending struggle where the good are surrounded by evil doers and threatened from within by traitors. It is possibly one of the dreariest world visions ever expounded, like an interminable, wet Belfast Sunday. How long can a man expounding such a vision last?
The fact that is has survived as long as it has is a testimony to Ulster’s isolation from the rest of the world. This in itself is a remarkable feat, considering its proximity to the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe, as well as the fact that it is, whether it likes it or not, part of the island of Ireland, which has undergone a huge transformation in the last 30 years. It was achieved partly as a result of the fact that from 1921 onward, Northern Ireland was deliberately marginalized in British politics. It became an appendage of the United Kingdom, socially as well as politically.
To keep Northern Ireland isolated from the rest of Ireland was a deliberate aim of the Unionists. As for Europe and the wider world beyond, Unionists regarded them with suspicion. Ulster, cut off, stagnated for 50 years, politically, culturally, and morally. (Sam Thompson, the Belfast playwright, remarked ruefully 40 years ago that it was the “Siberia of the arts.”)
Only in such a stagnant backwater could a phenomenon like Paisleyism flourish. But change has come to Ulster. This year’s debacle at Drumcree is another milestone in the slow decline of Paisleyism. Moderate Unionism survived. David Trimble did not go the way of Terence O’Neill and Brian Faulkner, in spite of predictions to the contrary. In an political environment where the IRA is no longer militarily active, the “Prepare to Meet Thy Doom” merchants have a harder time selling their wares. One day, hopefully, they’ll go completely out of business.