Paisley, Ian Richard Kyle (1926–2014), Lord Bannside, protestant revivalist and politician, was born in Armagh city on 6 April 1926, younger of two sons of James Kyle Paisley (known as Kyle Paisley), baptist preacher, and his wife Isabella (née Turnbull), a former governess from Kilsyth in Scotland, who was brought up presbyterian but became a baptist in her teens. Kyle and Isabella later adopted the daughter of an impoverished cousin.
Ancestry, early life and education
The Paisley and Kyle families of Paisley’s paternal grandparents had farmed in Brackey townland near Sixmilecross, Co. Tyrone, for generations and had longstanding Orange and Church of Ireland traditions. The Paisley children spent summer holidays on the family farm. Kyle converted to the baptist faith after being ‘born again’ aged sixteen in 1908 and became a part-time local preacher. As a draper’s assistant in Armagh, Kyle studied for the baptist ministry by correspondence course; he was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force during the Ulster crisis from 1912. In 1918 he became pastor of the small local baptist congregation. Isabella took an active role in the congregation, holding children’s classes and occasionally preaching.
In 1928 the Paisleys moved to Ballymena, Co. Antrim, after Kyle received a call to its baptist congregation. Kyle’s preaching increased the congregation considerably, but in 1934 it split when Isabella accused members of laxity in dress and sabbath observance while Kyle criticised two wealthy members for sexual and financial misdemeanours. In 1934 Kyle founded an independent baptist congregation (mostly his converts) on Waveney Road in Ballymena. This involved financial sacrifice as the depression era and the poverty of the congregation limited church collections – adding to the austerity of Ian’s upbringing, underpinned by belief that it was wrong to compromise with the worldly and unrighteous.
The Paisleys equated this dispute with contemporary conflict between fundamentalists and modernists in the Atlantic evangelical world, including the Irish presbyterian controversy culminating in the 1927 heresy trial of J. E. Davey (qv). Kyle had contacts with Canadian fundamentalists and his personal hero was the great Victorian baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–92). In his last years Spurgeon denounced theological liberalism; this ‘downgrade controversy’ led to disaffiliation of Spurgeon’s congregation from the Baptist Union. The Paisleys’ elder son was christened Harold Spurgeon Paisley.
While Harold Paisley went through a period of rebellion, serving as a merchant seaman during the second world war before becoming a brethren minister in Canada, Ian was unwaveringly committed to his parents’ faith. At the age of six, after his mother instructed a children’s bible class on ‘the Good Shepherd’, Ian informed her ‘I want to be a saved lamb, not a lost sheep’ and received assurance of salvation while praying in a pew of his father’s chapel. He later kept the pew in his manse.
Ian Paisley was educated at Ballymena Model School and Ballymena Technical High School, where he was academically undistinguished. After leaving school aged sixteen Paisley briefly worked as a farm labourer near Sixmilecross hoping to qualify to attend agricultural college, but after preaching locally decided to study for the ministry. (In a manner reminiscent of Éamon de Valera (qv), Paisley later recollected his experience of farm work to show he understood the plain people of Ulster, and his experience may underpin his professed affinity with St Patrick (qv). Paisley also recalled meeting the poet and presbyterian minister W. F. Marshall (qv) in Sixmilecross). Paisley trained at Barry College of Evangelism (later South Wales Bible College), 1942–3, where with other students he preached on the streets in tough working-class areas and learned to administer put-downs to hecklers. During later political controversies opponents contrasted Paisley’s claims to superior patriotism with his avoidance of wartime military service (though he could not have served overseas until turning nineteen in 1945).
From 1943–6 Paisley combined part-time study at the Belfast Theological Hall of the small Reformed Presbyterian Church ( known as covenanters) with guest preaching to evangelical congregations (the Irish Evangelical – later Evangelical Presbyterian – Church, where he was befriended by W. J. Grier (qv)). He does not seem to have considered joining the Irish Evangelical Church or Reformed Presbyterian Church, preferring to operate independently.
Ordination: fundamentalist and no-popery traditions
In 1946 Paisley was called as minister to the Ravenhill Road Evangelical Church in East Belfast, originated in a 1935 secession from the (highly conservative) Ravenhill Road Presbyterian Church by members who considered it insufficiently fundamentalist. Although three ministers (including Grier) whose ordination was recognised by the Irish Presbyterian Church participated in Paisley’s ordination ceremony on 1 August 1946, the laying on of hands was performed by Kyle Paisley and congregational elders. The Irish Presbyterian Church never recognised Paisley’s ordination; Paisley regarded it as broadly protestant rather than simply presbyterian. One of Paisley’s biographers, Steve Bruce, suggests the ordination of three of the elders for a presbyterian congregation before the 1935 split might give it presbyterian validity.
The question of Paisley’s ordination reflects wider social and intellectual tensions. During the nineteenth century Ulster presbyterianism in urban areas became a predominantly middle-class denomination, with the working classes either unchurched (though retaining protestant identification, often through childhood attendance at Sunday School) or attending independent gospel halls or smaller denominations such as the baptists. This milieu downgraded or abandoned presbyterian and anglican belief in a learned ministry, and emphasised emotional revivalist preaching reinforced by hymns and associated with the 1859 Ulster Revival and the transatlantic tours of the nineteenth-century American revivalists Dwight Moody (1837–99) and Ira Sankey (1840–1908). The fundamentalism of the 1920s also combined populist anti-intellectualism (claiming modernists were reviving priestcraft by denying the ability of the simple believer to interpret the Bible without expert assistance) and a revival of orthodox Calvinism (represented by the American presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937), Grier’s mentor) which existed in tension with revivalist emphasis on emotion-driven conversion. Paisley adopted the spiritual genealogy favoured by the Irish Evangelical Church, seeing the 1859 revival as the divine reward for the purification of presbyterianism by Henry Cooke (qv), and the declining fervour and apostasy of the mainstream Irish Presbyterian Church as consummated with its refusal to respond to the W. P. Nicholson (qv) revival of the 1920s by condemning J. E. Davey. (Paisley often recalled that Nicholson visited his church soon after his ordination and blessed Paisley, praying he might have a rough tongue ‘like an old cow’. Nicholson sympathised with Paisley in subsequent controversies, and Paisley republished some of Nicholson’s sermons as W. P. Nicholson: tornado of the pulpit.)
Paisley also drew on a network of ultra-protestant ideas and organisations developed in Britain during the nineteenth century in response to relaxation of links between protestant church and state, revival of catholic ritual practices and doctrinal beliefs within anglicanism from the 1830s, and the resurgence in numbers and prominence of the church of Rome. Paisley, like predecessors such as the polemicist and church rioter John Kensit (1853–1902) (founder of the Protestant Truth Society, regarded as a martyr after being fatally injured by a catholic attacker on Merseyside) related these developments to a narrative of protestant martyrdom stretching back to the sixteenth-century account of Marian persecution, Foxe’s book of martyrs, and Sufferings of the Church of Scotland, Robert Wodrow’s 1722 account of persecution of presbyterian covenanters by episcopalians under the later Stuart kings. Victorian and Edwardian no-popery activists saw themselves, like Foxe’s martyrs and Wodrow’s covenanters, as humble folk prophetically upholding truth against self-aggrandising priestly elites and timeserving lay rulers; they also experienced frequent personality-driven dissension and were criticised as driven by emotion and offering a simplistic version of the protestant tradition. These organisations were increasingly marginalised in England (and to a lesser extent Scotland) with growing secularisation of British society after the first world war, but survived on the religious and intellectual fringe; Ian Paisley’s maternal uncle by marriage William St Claire Taylor was prominent in the British-based National Union of Protestants, which Paisley helped bring to Belfast in the 1940s. Paisley later wrote pamphlets on such hallowed topics as the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of French protestants by catholic conspirators, and reprinted (with introductions by himself) such works as John Kensit junior’s Rome behind Sinn Féin (first published 1920). Paisley serialised in his periodicals stories by the popular novelist and English methodist preacher Joseph Hocking (1860–1937) who presented the anglican ritualist movement as a crypto-catholic conspiracy. (Paisley may not have known that Hocking supported home rule for Ireland to diminish catholic influence in Britain). When Paisley built a larger church to accommodate his expanding Ravenhill congregation in the late 1960s, he called it the Martyrs Memorial Church and placed among images of classic protestant teachers and martyrs a bust of his roommate at Barry College, Dennis Parry, killed by guerrillas as a missionary in the Belgian Congo.
Protestant populism had a political dimension; it combined the long-established symbolic equation of Britain with covenanted ancient Israel (with Ulster protestants as the two-and-a-half tribes dwelling on the far side of the Jordan amidst the heathen) and the tradition of anti-clerical whig history to argue that political freedom and national prosperity derived from true religion based on individual interpretation of the Bible, while backsliding into unbelief and idolatry by decadent political, social and academic elites undermined Britain’s material and political, as well as spiritual, greatness and threatened a new Babylonian captivity. Paisley was to project himself not only as a second Henry Cooke but as a new Edward Carson (qv), with the creation of Northern Ireland attributed to unwavering determination based on uncompromising protestantism.
The sense of a catholic threat was reinforced by the higher profile of catholicism in post-1945 Britain and the United States (as catholics became more prominent in business, popular culture and the professions without being socially and religiously assimilated to the extent seen after the Second Vatican Council) and internationally as a bulwark of Cold War anti-communism. In this context, such issues as massacres of orthodox Serbs in Yugoslavia by the catholic-fascist Croatian Ustasha movement during the second world war and restrictions on the religious liberties of Spanish protestants by the Franco regime attracted little attention outside ultra-protestant and secularist milieus, leading to unlikely alliances between protestant fundamentalists and secularist critics of catholic influence such as Paul Blanshard (qv). For Ulster protestants this narrative was reinforced by the memory of recent political conflict, the southern state’s post-war, anti-partition campaign and its exuberant catholicism (including intimidation of protestant evangelisers) combined with catholic attempts to evangelise northern protestants. The redemptorists at Clonard in north Belfast offered tours of their church for non-catholics wishing to know more about catholicism, and conducted a low-profile correspondence course for potential converts. Paisley and some associates attended the tours to argue the protestant case. Fr Daniel Cummings, a former British army chaplain who conducted the tours in the 1950s, recalled Paisley as a good-humoured and fair-minded antagonist but believed (writing in Birmingham in the late 1960s) that he had subsequently been corrupted by power-lust. Fr Cummings was one of the first to experience the contrast, noted by many later observers, between Paisley’s private charm and generosity and his violent public rhetoric.
Paisley’s ministry in working-class East Belfast – in the late 1940s a bastion of heavy industry, with daily movement of thousands of workers to and from the Harland and Wolff shipyard one of the sights of the city – involved tension between socialisation patterns based on the workplace, the labour movement and the pub, and those centred on the church and its ancillary social institutions. This was to some extent a division between the sexes; Paisley’s masculine image and his magnetic attraction for some female congregants was noted (though he did not exploit this and became a devoted husband and father). Paisley’s forceful oratory reflected the tradition of street-preaching in working-class areas – possibly hostile, certainly exposed to hecklers, where audiences needed to be won over – and revivalist tent-meetings, where services were structured to pressurise the unconverted. Paisley’s impact was reinforced by his physical presence – he was six feet five inches tall, and filled out physically as he grew older and more prosperous. An abiding nickname was ‘the big man’ (mocked by the poet and critic Tom Paulin, who suggested Paisley derived from a prehistoric race of giant preachers roaming the basalt coast of Antrim, and implied in his poem ‘Desertmartin’ that the image of ‘a big man leading his wee people’ reflected an infantilisation of Ulster protestants by fundamentalism). His Ballymena accent, seen as strikingly alien by international audiences in his later career, reinforced his image as a man of the people. He also benefited from social deference still extended to men of the cloth.
In a pre-television era, Paisley’s meetings (especially in rural districts) combined religious enthusiasm with popular entertainment; his gift for coining political and religious one-liners can be underestimated. Paisley mounted stunts such as the celebration of mass (in Latin with the celebrant’s back to the congregation as then standard) at his meetings by Juan Arrien, a Spanish ex-priest turned protestant evangeliser, with communion hosts distributed and discarded. Since catholics believed a validly ordained apostate using a valid mass rite retained the ability to transubstantiate bread and wine into the body and blood of God, this was seen as horrific desecration; some protestants publicly apologised for the offense given. Paisley regarded himself as exposing the absurdity of catholic wafer-worship; after a later stunt involving a possibly consecrated wafer during a televised debate, some commentators compared Paisley to the black magician Aleister Crowley (1875–1947). This comparison was reinforced by an undercurrent of sexual titillation in his expositions on the prurience and depravity of catholic clerics and religious, reflecting a long tradition of protestant polemic. (The tone of these claims made them easily dismissible even when – as with denunciation of quasi-imprisonment of ‘fallen women’ in Magdalen laundries run by catholic religious orders – they had substance). The prominent methodist preacher Donald Soper (1903–88), whose activities in the East End of London familiarised him with the challenges of street-preaching, called Belfast ‘a city of religious night-clubs’, thinking of this fusion of evangelism and entertainment. Soper aroused Paisley’s particular dislike because he believed Gospel narratives of the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus should not be taken literally; on visits to Belfast he faced aggressive hecklers led by Paisley, and a Paisleyite once threw a bible at Soper.
Despite Paisley’s populism, he aspired to the presbyterian tradition of a learned ministry, founded on biblical knowledge. (He made a point of reading the entire Bible once a year, and published a guide to doing so with maximum spiritual benefit). Throughout his career, he was a voracious reader and collector of books on theology and history. (These became the Bannside Library of the European Institute of Protestant Studies, founded by Paisley). Critics often suggested his denunciations of liberal academics reflected insecurity at his own lack of formal credentials. In 1954 Paisley acquired a BD by correspondence-course from Pioneer Theological Seminary in Rockford, Illinois, followed by an honorary DD; he subsequently gained an MA in theology from Burton College and Seminary in Manitou Springs, Colorado. Paisley’s centenary study of the Ulster Revival (compiled from various contemporary accounts, ending with a warning that the loss of the spirit of the Revival was leading to the resurgence of popery) was originally intended as a Ph.D. dissertation for Burton College. It soon became known, however, that Pioneer and Burton were ‘degree-mills’ without faculty or certification offering degrees for nominal work and ‘fees’, Paisley then ceased to use these degrees. In 1966 Paisley received an honorary DD from Bob Jones University (BJU) in Greenville, North Carolina, with which he had established a close relationship, and was subsequently though not universally called ‘Dr Paisley’. (BJU possessed faculty, buildings and courses, but was controversial because of its fundamentalism, anti-catholicism and insistence that racial segregation was divinely decreed).
In 1951 Paisley founded the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster after a split in the presbyterian congregation at Crossgar, Co. Down. Over the following decade Paisley exploited divisions in local churches to build a network of small free presbyterian congregations, claiming in his church paper The Revivalist (founded 1955) that true believers were obliged to separate from apostate churches. Although a majority of free presbyterians came from presbyterian backgrounds, the church was not uniformly presbyterian in its practices (it treated infant baptism as an open question, reflecting Paisley’s baptist origins). Paisley served as moderator from its foundation until 2008 with one short interval (presbyterian churches normally elect a new moderator annually). Paisley’s activities disrupted the evangelical and ultra-protestant milieu after he made it clear he would ‘poach’ dissident factions within congregations irrespective of the minister’s theological sympathies, and that he was unwilling to work with others unless they accepted his leadership. This fissiparousness extended to the Free Presbyterian Church; its first two decades were marked by personal quarrels and defections, including a short-lived Independent Free Presbyterian Church in Larne, but after establishing his own ministerial training hall Paisley built up a cadre of loyal ministers and activists. This core was held together not only by doctrinal commitment but by personal and family ties (Rev. John Wylie, one of Paisley’s lieutenants, came from a founding family of Kyle Paisley’s breakaway congregation) and by Paisley’s personal charisma and affability. The presence of the Free Presbyterian Church as an aggressive rival for the allegiance of discontented fundamentalists within presbyterianism strengthened theological conservatives within the mainstream church, while deterring lukewarm liberals who did not fancy being picketed or threatened (especially after the Troubles broke out). More stalwart liberals were embarrassed by the fact that Paisley, whatever the status of his ordination, could plausibly claim to represent historic aspects of the evangelical and presbyterian traditions which were an embarrassment in the context of liberal modernity. During Paisley’s campaigns against official unionism and the Northern Ireland civil rights movement in the late 1960s, the church provided a support network not available to earlier ultra-protestant Independent Unionists who tended to be one-man bands.
The church also established contacts with North American fundamentalists such as Carl McIntire (1906–2002), Billy James Hargis (1925–2004, also a ‘graduate’ of Burton College) and Bob Jones Jr (1911–97), who taught them methods of publicity and fundraising such as selling taped Paisley sermons, and later CDs and videocassettes. (Paisley published numerous sermons as pamphlets; the more theologically orientated of these were structured around alliteratively titled ‘heads’, in traditional presbyterian style.) These associates were ‘old Christian right’ fundamentalists who preached separation from the ungodly and denounced evangelicals such as the Bob Jones University graduate Billy Graham (1918–2018) who, seeking to influence the wider culture, co-operated with the insufficiently godly (including catholics). They also defended racial segregation, denouncing the American civil rights movement as communist-inspired; in the 1960s Paisley’s publications reproduced articles by American segregationists, reinforcing comparisons between the US and Irish civil rights movements.
In 1956 Paisley first attracted widespread public attention through his connection with Maura Lyons, a fifteen-year-old catholic factory worker who left home after altercations with her parents over her conversion to free presbyterianism and was concealed by fundamentalists in Britain; after reaching her sixteenth birthday she returned to Belfast but was returned home by court order and later reverted to catholicism. Paisley also helped arrange a refuge for Sheila Cloney (qv) during the Fethard-on-Sea controversy, in association with his newly-acquired political mentor, Desmond Boal (1928–2015). Boal, a lawyer who became Stormont MP for Shankill in 1960, resented the patrician unionist establishment and saw Paisley as a potential tribune for the protestant working class, while Paisley respected Boal’s political savvy and intellectual brilliance. Despite Boal’s relatively secular outlook and lifestyle and his later explorations of constitutional options which Paisley could not have embraced without political suicide, the two men remained close even after Boal left front-line politics for the bar in the early 1970s.
Early political involvement
Around the time of his ordination Paisley joined the Orange Order in East Belfast, becoming a lodge and district chaplain. He took a leading role in organising the Ulster Unionist (UUP) campaign at the 1949 Stormont election in the Labour-held marginal seat of Dock, and after the Unionists captured the seat tried unsuccessfully to secure nomination to the Northern Ireland senate. In 1950 he assisted the successful campaign of J. G. MacManaway for the West Belfast Westminster seat. Paisley’s political contacts extended to the ‘Independent Unionist’ milieu in North and West Belfast which acted as a vehicle for unskilled protestant working-class discontent against the unionist establishment. Paisley was on particularly close terms with Independent Unionist Stormont MP for Woodvale J. W. Nixon (qv). These contacts did not entail rupture with official unionism, since the working-class loyalist milieu was fluid in its allegiances, with working-class loyalists (including some with paramilitary involvement) and evangelists such as Paisley moving between ephemeral organisations and often co-opted by elements of the official party to mobilise working-class protestant voters against the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP). The increasing emphasis of post-war Stormont governments on planning and technocratic rhetoric, and the blighting effect of such grands projets as a proposed motorway through Belfast via the Shankill, weakened traditional brokerage mechanisms by which the party establishment manipulated this milieu, and led to a sense of elite betrayal among working-class protestants given expression by Paisleyism. At the 1953 Stormont general election, the most prominent UUP liberal, Brian Maginess (qv), was challenged by an independent candidate, while Paisley’s rival for control of the Northern Ireland National Union of Protestants, Norman Porter (qv), stood as an Independent Unionist and narrowly unseated a former minister for education in Belfast Clifton.
The foundation of the Free Presbyterian Church led to Paisley’s alienation from official unionism and Orangeism, after mainstream protestant churches used their influence to make it almost impossible for free presbyterian ministers to become lodge chaplains, blocking Paisley’s advancement. Paisley left the Order in 1962. He resigned from the Apprentice Boys of Derry around 1952, though he rejoined in 1971 (as a smaller body than the Orange Order, it was more susceptible to Paisleyite infiltration). From the 1970s Paisley spoke at the 12 July commemoration of the Independent Orange Order (originally a 1902 populist secession, surviving in north Antrim) though he never formally joined.
In 1956, after the Lyons case marked them out as protestant champions, Paisley and Boal joined Ulster Protestant Action (UPA), a predominantly working-class and lower-middle-class body. It aimed to infiltrate the trade union movement (imitating ‘catholic action’, a term for various clericalist bodies claiming to promote catholic social teaching within the labour movement in Britain and elsewhere). UPA campaigned against the supposed betrayal of unionism by liberal elements within the UUP such as Brian Maginess, running independent candidates in some local council elections; it prepared for counter-violence if the IRA ‘border campaign’ of 1956–62 spread to Belfast. Northern catholics increasingly saw Paisley as a figure of fear and hatred, since his experience and confidence as a public speaker and the authority attached to a man of the cloth made him the pre-eminent voice of UPA. In 1959, speaking on the Shankill Road, Paisley named catholic shopkeepers living and working on the Shankill as evidence of catholic subversion of protestant Ulster. This led to riotous attacks on the premises named, after Paisley went home to East Belfast.
Against political and religious ecumenism
After a few years, as the perceived IRA threat receded, UPA was largely reabsorbed into the UUP and Paisley focussed on religious matters. The election in 1958 of Pope John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council with the aim of reshaping catholic practice to make it more accessible to the modern world, and subsequent development of closer inter-church relations involving the Catholic Church (previously aloof from the ecumenical movement) provided fresh evidence of protestant apostasy and Roman infiltration. When John XXIII died in 1963, the Lord Mayor of Belfast flew the Union Jack at half mast on the City Hall. Paisley responded by preaching at a service in the Ulster Hall on ‘the Pope in Hell’. Paisley subsequently visited Rome with two clerical associates to evangelise the clerics assembled for the Vatican Council; his protest and distribution of tracts was suppressed by police. An amateur film of these experiences entitled In the hands of the Gestapo, with live commentary by Paisley, was shown at free presbyterian services.
Hardline unionists in the 1950s were restrained in denunciations of liberal unionist tendencies by trust in Lord Brookeborough (qv). The ascension to the premiership in March 1963 of Terence O’Neill (qv) whose rhetoric of technocratic modernisation and cross-community relations Paisley saw as betraying protestantism and unionism, intensified discontent. Paisley assisted the victory of the official unionist James Kilfedder (qv) in the marginal West Belfast seat at the 1964 Westminster general election by publicising an Irish tricolour visible at the campaign office of the republican candidate Liam McMillen (qv). Such displays were illegal, but usually tolerated in catholic/nationalist areas; after Paisley threatened to lead supporters into the Falls Road to remove the flag, the RUC removed it, provoking a riot.
Paisley’s foundation of the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee (UCDC) in February 1966 was accompanied by the appearance in April of the Protestant Telegraph (a riposte to the pro-O’Neill Belfast Telegraph). This paper aroused considerable and often horrified comment through quasi-racist denunciations of the Northern Irish catholic population, often-titillating accounts of the seamier history of the Catholic Church, and attacks on protestant politicians and churchmen perceived as politico-religious traitors. Similar material frequently appeared in Paisley’s sermons. It is not clear how deeply Paisley or his audience believed claims that the Belgian Cardinal Suenens led catholic charismatics in public worship of a giant phallus, or that European Community images of Europa riding on the bull represented the Whore of Babylon riding on the Beast (from the Book of Revelation) – it was probably advanced and received in histrionic terms, as true symbolically if not literally – but such material reinforced a sense of apocalypse, elite and media betrayal and access to unauthorised knowledge, reinforced by the steady deterioration of the Northern Ireland political situation. The UCDC acquired a paramilitary arm, the Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV), organised by Paisley’s business manager Noel Doherty and in contact with anti-O’Neill elements on the Unionist Party fringe. Doherty allegedly screened Paisley from direct involvement, but critics often suggested Paisley must have suspected something. Paisley’s career was marked by recurring accusations that he combined his verbal appeals to covenanter and Carsonite traditions of armed resistance with a degree of paramilitary involvement. Paisley always denied these accusations, accusing political opponents of smearing him and threatening libel actions against those who repeated them; but for much of his career these perceptions severely damaged his ability to appeal to moderate and middle-class unionist voters.
The foundation of the UCDC was linked to the impending 1966 UK general election (31 March) and the fiftieth anniversaries of the 1916 Easter rising and the Battle of the Somme (1 July). Paisley had campaigned to have a new bridge across the Lagan named after Edward Carson, and briefly recruited Carson’s youngest son as a protest Westminster candidate when it was named after Queen Elizabeth II. During the election, Paisleyites distributed handbills in West Belfast alleging Kilfedder had been active in Fine Gael as a student at TCD. Several unionist activists (some associated with the nascent Unionist Volunteer Force (UVF)) sent a letter to Paisley blaming him for the defeat of Kilfedder by Republican Labour Party candidate Gerry Fitt (qv). When Paisley was approached by the police after murders by the UVF under Gusty Spence (qv) Paisley gave them the letter, leading to the signatories being investigated. A claim that a man arrested for the shootings said under police investigation that he blamed Paisley and wished he had never heard of him was widely publicised. Paisley and sympathetic observers pointed out that at trial the man denied this, and suggested the police tried to frame Paisley at the behest of O’Neill (who denounced Paisley as a fascist).
In June 1966 Paisley led a protest march to the General Assembly of the presbyterian church at Fisherwick Place in the city centre. After precipitating a riot by marching through the predominantly catholic Markets district, the protesters barracked dignitaries attending the assembly; the wife of the governor-general of Northern Ireland was taken ill soon afterwards. Paisley was subsequently sentenced to three months’ imprisonment (or a fine) for unlawful assembly; his wife was pregnant with their youngest twins at the time. Paisley had received two previous short jail sentences with the option of a fine, paid by political opponents to deprive him of martyrdom; on this occasion, however, Paisley was required to sign a bond to keep the peace in order to avoid prison. He refused and occupied himself in Crumlin Road Prison by writing a commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, written from prison (implicitly equating his imprisonment with that of the apostle).
Electoral involvement: outbreak of the Troubles
Paisley organised counter-protests against the marches of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, involving implicit threats of violence which gave the authorities a pretext to cancel both demonstrations. Paisley tended, however, to leave violent aspects of this campaign to his nominal political deputy, Major Ronald Bunting (1924–84; a former Labour supporter who had undergone religious conversion under Paisley’s influence). Bunting led the club-wielding marchers, some drawn from the UPV, who shadowed People’s Democracy Belfast–Derry marchers and attacked them at Burntollet in January 1969. When Paisley and Bunting received short jail sentences soon thereafter, Paisley decided after brief imprisonment that his presence outside was necessary to rally his followers. Bunting served his term, and later accused Paisley of using and discarding him.
At the 1969 Stormont election, called by O’Neill in an attempt to purge UUP opponents and win a cross-community mandate, Paisley stood in O’Neill’s Bannside constituency, centred on Ballymena. O’Neill, who had never previously fought a contested election, came across as remote, self-congratulatory and condescending, while Paisley proved a highly effective campaigner, working crowds, responding to audience mood, and highlighting such issues as the large number of Bannsiders reliant on outside toilets. O’Neill retained the seat on a minority vote securing 7,745 votes to Paisley’s 6,331 and 2,310 for Michael Farrell, a People’s Democracy candidate. This showed Paisley was a serious electoral threat and contributed to the speedy end of O’Neill’s premiership. The final push was administered to O’Neill by bomb attacks on Belfast’s electricity and water supplies, initially attributed to the IRA but perpetrated by UPV members.
Paisley did not personally join the mob attacks on catholic districts which marked the outbreak of the Troubles and led to the intervention of British forces in August 1969 but many rioters were Paisley supporters or associates such as John McKeague (qv) whom Paisley disowned after McKeague’s homosexuality became public knowledge. After the trial and conviction of several UPV members (including Noel Doherty) for the attacks on Belfast’s water and electricity, Paisley denied any connection. This, and Paisley’s subsequent calls for the execution of loyalists who committed murder (reflecting his general support for capital punishment) led to a recurring pattern whereby Paisley invoked threats of paramilitary resistance à la Carson and solicited loyalist support, then disavowed and condemned loyalist violence while continuing to demand stringent measures reminiscent of the Old Testament by the British state against the republican threat even as he accused the same state of conspiring to betray the protestant people of Ulster. This may have reflected some residual moral constraint as a Christian minister, or political calculation (especially as the level of paramilitary violence stabilised from the mid-1970s) that much of the protestant community would shun direct support for paramilitaries unless it seemed that British withdrawal was imminent, but most of all reflected the reality that (as O’Neill had pointed out to hardline critics) unionist Northern Ireland lacked the economic strength and international support required to go it alone while repressing the increasingly militant nationalist minority.
Paisley was widely regarded as bearing much of the responsibility for the outbreak of the Troubles, and his words and actions reinforced his image among catholics as the embodiment of bigotry and terror, but many unionists drew the opposite conclusion – that the Troubles vindicated Paisley’s warnings that religious and political compromise threatened Northern Ireland. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a significant increase in free presbyterian members and congregations, culminating in the replacement of the old Ravenhill congregational building by the Martyrs’ Memorial Church, described as the largest protestant church built in Europe since the second world war. (The 1972 documentary on Northern Ireland by Marcel Ophuls, A sense of loss, features several clips of Paisley preaching in the Martyrs Memorial; the old-style nonconformist protestant practice of focussing the building on the pulpit rather than the communion table is noteworthy). The Free Presbyterian Church also acquired some small congregations in North America (which later combined as the Free Presbyterian Church of North America) and absorbed historic but struggling independent British churches in such locations as Lewes (in Sussex) and Liverpool. It conducted foreign missions in Cameroon, Spain and Latin America. A 1998 visit by Paisley to Cameroon is the subject of Jon Ronson’s TV documentary, Dr Paisley, I presume, which emphasises Paisley’s patronising attitude to his African adherents – recruited through a split in the local presbyterian church – and his heavy-handed humour on such matters as Ronson’s Jewish origins. Paisley’s sermons in the Martyrs’ Memorial Church presented contemporary political events as signs of God’s working in history and the urgent need for religious revival and individual conversion, in particular acceptance of Paisley’s leadership. Many supporters saw Paisley as a modern prophet, specially raised up by God to direct Ulster in its time of need and exempt from constraints applied to lesser men. Paisley claimed the misfortunes of opponents such as Brian Faulkner (qv) (killed in a riding accident) and Patrick Marrinan, author of an extremely hostile Paisley biography (severely injured in a car crash) represented divine vengeance – ‘God withered the hand that wrote against me’ (Irish News, 13 September 2014). For many Ulster Unionists, even if they did not support his party, Paisley became a folk hero – someone who, however flawed, defied the mighty, expressed sentiments widely felt but rarely voiced and engaged in symbolic acts of resistance (even when these produced little concrete result). Many observers described Paisley’s political and ecclesiastical style of leadership as ‘papal’, noting the unwillingness of many followers to go against his publicly expressed views (though Paisley was regarded as a sect leader rather than a cult leader – constrained to some extent by the evangelical theological framework shared with his followers rather than able to transform their beliefs and practices by arbitrary decisions). Many critics found it hard to reconcile this rebarbative image with numerous private acts of kindness by Paisley – some directed towards individual catholics, outside as well as within his constituency – which were widely known in private circles, and with the sense that many of his non-political sermons reflected a genuine love of God, and with his happy family life (though using a lecherous family dog named ‘Bishop’ to embarrass a Church of Ireland policeman guarding the Paisley residence may have been in dubious taste) (Rhonda Paisley, 1986).
The face of unionism?
Outside Northern Ireland, Paisley came to be seen as the embodiment of Northern Ireland unionism, overshadowing successive leaders of the UUP and other splinter groups. This was hardly an advantage for the unionist cause on the world stage; where O’Neill and his ministers looked and sounded like the gentry, professionals and provincial businessmen who dominated the 1960s British conservative apparatus, Paisley’s raucous accent and explicit appeal to a type of no-popery protestantism marginalised outside parts of the US bible belt made him – and by extension unionism – appear as exotic to British and world audiences as their nationalist and republican opponents. Some commentators suggested, however, that Paisley’s aggressive ‘otherness’ made many inhabitants of the Republic of Ireland less inclined to assume that Ulster Unionists were only superficially different from their southern neighbours and would be easily assimilated after unification. Many of Paisley’s catholic and protestant opponents, however, expressed frustration throughout the Troubles over portrayals of Paisley as a comic figure, which ignored the destructive aspects of his career. He also became an embarrassment to many protestants in Ireland and worldwide (for example, when the art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon reinforced the argument of his 1996 BBC television documentary series A history of British art that the Reformation was responsible for British weakness in the visual arts by interviewing Paisley, who gleefully defended Reformation iconoclasm). The Scottish Labour MP Tam Dalyell (1932–2017), asked about an ancestor’s role in repressing the covenanters, replied that they were seventeenth-century versions of Paisley.
Daithi Ó Conaill (qv) claimed the IRA was determined not to assassinate Paisley because they saw his antics as an asset to republicanism (though the INLA once attempted a sniper attack as his car crossed the Albert Bridge into East Belfast). In the 1980s the republican folk group ‘The Irish Brigade’ produced a satirical ballad entitled ‘Ian Paisley’ with the chorus ‘Tooraloo, tooralay/ You’re the best friend we’ve had since the Old IRA’.
Democratic Unionist Party: Save Ulster from sodomy
In 1970, O’Neill resigned from Stormont. The Chichester-Clark government mounted a high-profile defence of the Bannside seat, including the personal involvement of cabinet ministers and the elderly Lord Brookeborough, but Paisley was returned. At the 1970 Westminster general election Paisley was elected MP for North Antrim, defeating the Ulster Unionist Henry Clark (qv). He held the seat (whose boundaries were revised at the 1979 election with the creation of the East Antrim seat) for forty years with solid majorities, and became known as an effective constituency worker, even for local catholics. Some commenters saw a tension between his activities as a local political broker and his apocalyptic warnings of betrayal. Paisleyism also came to dominate Ballymena Council, where Sandy Spence was mayor 1978–93.
In 1971 the Protestant Unionist Party was absorbed into the new Democratic Unionist Party (DUP); Paisley supported this move under Boal’s influence, wishing to broaden the party’s appeal. Some church members reluctant to abandon the ‘protestant’ label were overridden, and the Free Presbyterian Church decided that its ministers should not become directly involved in politics – with the exception of Paisley (as a special case) and a few who were already politically active. Free presbyterians remained heavily overrepresented in the DUP leadership (at its height the church never had more than one per cent of the population of Northern Ireland as members, though it also attracted a floating audience of evangelicals who were not formal members; DUP activists such as Clifford Smyth who fell out with the party were pressurised out of the church, and splits continued – notably the creation of a two-congregation Reformed Free Presbyterian Church in protest against Paisley’s toleration of plagiarism among the church’s theological students) and Paisley remained involved in religiously-oriented campaigns on such issues as sabbath observance, abortion, blasphemous drama and obscene television programmes.
Between 1977 and 1982 Paisley conducted a high-profile ‘Save Ulster from sodomy’ campaign, resisting calls for the 1967 legalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales to be extended to Northern Ireland. This view was shared by conservative catholics, but Paisley refused to campaign alongside catholics as he believed this would diminish his evangelical witness (although he was willing to co-operate with catholic MPs at Westminster). Even before a 1982 European Court ruling forced the legalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland, the campaign – and Paisley’s reputation – was damaged by the Kincora Boys’ Home scandal, involving revelations of the sexual abuse of teenage residents by staff members including the loyalist William McGrath (qv) amidst rumours that boys had been prostituted to prominent individuals and security forces were involved in blackmail and cover-up. Paisley had failed to take action when alerted to the allegations by a prominent free presbyterian, Valerie Shaw (foundress of its Board of Missions) who left the church as a result.
Nevertheless, the creation of the DUP is seen by some commentators as marking Paisley’s move away from the fundamentalist ethos of the select few to a broader self-image as the leader of Northern protestants who would secure their future in the promised land; Paisleyite literature began to call him a future prime minister of Northern Ireland. Although Paisley’s public rhetoric offered total victory through unyielding determination on the supposed Carson model, in private he and Boal established contacts in British and Irish official circles and with the SDLP, suggesting Paisley might deliver protestant/unionist consent to a cross-community settlement. These initiatives came to nothing because of Paisley’s unwillingness to antagonise hardline supporters or take second place to other unionist leaders, and because he was not prepared to make concessions significant enough for nationalists to accept. After the abolition of the Stormont parliament Boal stood back from politics to concentrate on the bar, while advising Paisley unofficially.
Paisley surprised many supporters by opposing internment – since it could be used against loyalists as well as republicans – and by advocating replacement of Stormont by direct rule from Westminster. This was partly motivated by awareness that abolition of Stormont, by depriving the UUP of civil service support, would strengthen the DUP. Boal caused further confusion by publicly dallying with proposals for power-sharing between unionists and nationalists. The demise of Stormont, however, also led to the emergence of Bill Craig (qv) and his Vanguard movement to rival Paisley and the DUP for leadership of intransigent unionism.
The struggle to lead the right wing of unionism: the 1974 and 1977 loyalist strikes
In the June 1973 elections to the Northern Ireland assembly (by proportional representation) the DUP won eight seats (with 10.8 per cent of the vote) to Vanguard’s seven (with 10.5 per cent); the Ulster Unionist faction opposed to compromise, led by Harry West (qv) won seven seats but took control of the UUP in January 1974 after the Sunningdale Agreement. These three bodies joined with loyalist paramilitaries and other groups in campaigning against the power-sharing Executive formed under Sunningdale, culminating in the Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) strike of June 1974. Paisley (unlike Craig) spent the beginning of the strike out of the country but participated in its later stages and claimed credit for its success.
The UWC strike encouraged a view in British circles that militant unionism must be accommodated in any settlement (and/or that attempts at an overall solution must take second place to containing the conflict). At the 1975 election for a Constitutional Convention summoned by then secretary of state Merlyn Rees (qv) the DUP again won eight seats and Vanguard seven (with a higher vote) while West’s UUP won thirty-one. During subsequent negotiations Craig proposed a ‘voluntary coalition’ between unionists and the SDLP; although Craig initially (probably overconfidently) believed Paisley supported this proposal, it proved unpopular with the DUP rank and file. Paisley denounced it and disowned his deputy Rev. William Beattie (who had endorsed it publicly). The resulting split between Craig and the hardliner Ernest Baird (qv) led to Vanguard’s disintegration. The loyalist paramilitaries and shop stewards also failed to produce a coherent political vehicle (which some commentators had predicted after the strike); this reflected leadership inexperience and personal divisions, and the difficulty of producing a coherent political programme. Although many paramilitaries were former NILP supporters, left-wing rhetoric attracted suspicion as potentially disloyal, whereas Paisley’s evangelicalism drew on deep-rooted cultural elements of Ulster protestant society recognisable even to non-believers; loyalist advocates of Northern Irish independence invoked Gaelic-sounding icons such as Cuchulain and Congal Cláen, clashing with a residual sense of Britishness, and found their rank and file more interested in military symbolism.
In 1977 Paisley organised a second strike, demanding a tougher security response and the restoration of majority rule; these, however, could not be secured without the co-operation of the British Government (whereas the downfall of the Executive in 1974 had been attainable unilaterally). Paisley’s Ulster Unionist Action Council won the support of loyalist paramilitaries and Baird’s UUUP, but not the UUP, who retained a certain commitment to respectability and accepted government assurances about more stringent action against terrorism. Despite widespread intimidation, the strike failed because of poor organisation, failure to win the support of key workers who had come out in 1974, moderate unionist disapproval of loyalist violence (which included the killing of two catholic brothers who refused to shut their business premises), and a determined security force response led by the next secretary of state Roy Mason (1924–2015) whose tough image (as compared to the nervous appearance and emphasis on political compromise of his predecessor Merlyn Rees) helped to mute the sense of imminent social disintegration widely shared in the first half of the decade. Paisley rapidly revoked a promise to retire if defeated, claiming the promise only applied to his North Antrim constituency (where the strike had won significant initial support, with roads blocked by farm vehicles until they were unblocked by army vehicles). Despite this fiasco, simultaneous local elections, where the DUP campaign was masterminded by the talented young activist and organiser Peter Robinson, increased DUP support at the expense of smaller unionist parties, establishing that the basic division within unionism was between the UUP and DUP. It also reflected a wider sense of Unionist impotence, against which Paisley’s symbolic gestures at least appeared to be doing something while avoiding explicit endorsement of paramilitary violence.
At the 1979 general election, the DUP returned three Westminster MPs, with Paisley joined by the veteran John McQuade (qv) and the twenty-nine-year-old Robinson, who narrowly defeated Craig in East Belfast. Robinson emerged as Paisley’s second-in-command, whose establishment of an independent powerbase (unlike previous Paisley acolytes) was reflected in his recruitment of a new cadre of talented Queen’s University (QUB) graduates, his strong influence on Dundonald Council (in the eastern suburbs of Belfast) and his eventual transfer from free presbyterianism to elim pentecostalism.
In June 1979, Paisley contested the first direct elections to the European Parliament, overriding members such as John Wylie who thought this inconsistent with the church’s belief that the European Community was a forerunner of a one-world government presided over by the Antichrist. Paisley topped the poll in the three-member Northern Ireland constituency with 29.8 per cent of first preferences and was elected on the first count, ahead of the SDLP’s John Hume and the UUP’s John Taylor. Harry West, the second UUP candidate, then resigned as party leader. Paisley topped the poll at the four subsequent European elections he contested (although Hume ran him close in 1999, after the Belfast Agreement). In Brussels Paisley combined effective work on committees and brokerage for Northern Irish interests (even when this involved co-operation with Irish nationalists; during a 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom, Paisley claimed Northern Ireland should be excluded from an embargo on livestock export because while Ulster was British its cattle were Irish) with grandstanding demonstrations in selected contexts. Most famously, in October 1988 Paisley disrupted a visit by Pope John Paul II to the European Parliament, shouting ‘I denounce you as the Antichrist’. (One of the MEPs who ejected Paisley from the chamber was the last Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Otto von Hapsburg; Paisley commented that the Hapsburgs had a record of persecuting protestants).
In February 1981 Paisley responded to negotiations between Charles Haughey (qv) and Margaret Thatcher by announcing the formation of a ‘third force’, officered by associates such as Rev. Ivan Foster, to assist the security forces, and holding a ‘Carson trail’ of rallies around Northern Ireland imitating the series of rallies addressed by Carson which had culminated in the mass signing of the 1912 Ulster Covenant. The ‘third force’ was presented as an unofficial replacement for the B-specials. In practice it amounted to little more than a number of semi-clandestine gatherings staged for reporters (at one the participants, instead of producing firearms, waved pieces of paper alleged to be firearms certificates) but the illusion of action influenced the local elections of 1981 at which the DUP, for the first time, received more first preference votes than the UUP.
Thereafter, however, the DUP lost ground to the UUP. Although the UUP had lost a generation of activists with the departures of O’Neill and Faulkner, its constituency organisation was weak and it was dominated by an older generation who looked back to the Brookeborough era as ‘normality’, it could still rely on a large though dwindling deferential vote as well as on middle-class unionists deterred by evangelicalism and DUP verbal violence. James Molyneaux, UUP leader 1979–95, influenced by the anti-devolutionist Enoch Powell (1912–98) whom Molyneaux believed to have Thatcher’s ear, pursued a strategy of inertia in the belief that any serious initiative would divide the party and that over time Northern Ireland would become more integrated with the United Kingdom. Just as Margaret Thatcher’s talks with Haughey had given credibility to Paisley’s prophecies of British betrayal, her public refusals to compromise with the 1981 and 1982 republican hunger strikes and military reassertion of British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands underpinned Molyneaux’s optimism, while her landslide at the 1983 general election quietened fears that a left-wing Labour government might force reunification. In March 1982, the DUP candidate Rev. William McCrea (b. 1948) was heavily defeated in the South Belfast by-election caused by the IRA murder of the UUP MP Rev. Robert Bradford (qv), and in the October 1982 elections to a new Northern assembly the UUP took twenty-five seats to the DUP’s twenty-one. At the 1983 Westminster general election the UUP regained North Belfast (though McCrea took the nationalist-majority Mid Ulster seat in a four-way contest). North Antrim was divided, and Paisley chose to stand in the residual North Antrim seat (claiming this reflected his attachment to Bannside which had witnessed his defeat of O’Neillism) rather than East Antrim where his personal support might have prevented the UUP’s narrow victory.
Molyneaux’s strategy was discredited by the Anglo-Irish Agreement (15 November 1985) between the governments of Garret FitzGerald (qv) and Margaret Thatcher, which gave the Irish government a guaranteed role in Northern Ireland, institutionalised in a secretariat of Irish civil servants based at Maryfield in the grounds of Stormont Castle. Molyneaux was shown to have overestimated Powell’s influence over Thatcher and the Conservative Party. The Agreement was endorsed at Westminster by 473 votes to forty-seven (the minority included some pro-republican Labour MPs), reflecting the sustained efforts of Irish diplomats and showing the extremely limited support unionists enjoyed beyond the right-wing fringe of the Conservative Party. The Northern assembly was suspended amidst protests by unionist MLAs. In a celebrated sermon, Paisley called on God to hand Thatcher – ‘this wicked, deceitful, lying woman’ – over to the Devil ‘to teach her not to blaspheme’. The DUP and UUP formed a common front behind the slogan ‘Ulster says no’ and an unexpectedly angry response by middle-class as well as working-class unionists led to mass protests and caused Thatcher to soft-pedal further co-operation. Paisley addressed 100,000 unionists in Belfast, bellowing ‘Never, never, never, never, never’ and acquired a new nickname ‘Doctor No’. In November 1986 and early 1987 Paisley and Robinson participated in the founding rallies of a new paramilitary group, Ulster Resistance (UR), at one of which Paisley was photographed wearing the red beret associated with the new organisation. Paisley participated in loyalists protests against the blocking of an Orange parade through a catholic district in central Portadown, which included veiled threats against RUC members. Paisley and his lieutenants confined themselves to presenting UR as intended to hold itself in readiness for a vaguely defined future doomsday, and withdrew their support when UR was linked to illegal activities. (UR tried to exchange missile technology stolen from a Belfast factory for weapons to be supplied by the apartheid regime in South Africa, and guns illegally imported by UR in co-operation with the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and UVF played a major role in an upsurge of murders by loyalist paramilitaries). Middle-class unionists proved unwilling to join in violent protests, the RUC enforced restrictions on protestors despite a campaign of arson and intimidation, and it became clear that the Agreement could not be overturned by street protests and non-compliance with government. Elements within both the DUP and the UUP began to consider compromise – which was significantly complicated by the electoral growth of Sinn Féin since the early 1980s. It is widely believed that in the developments of the following two decades, Peter Robinson and his associates were inclined towards eventual compromise, with Paisley occasionally taking the initiative but fundamentally reactive.
Although Paisley was critical of early moves towards compromise in the 1990s, this contributed to electoral setbacks for the DUP, which lost control of its Ballymena Council stronghold in 1993 (partly because of younger voters’ hostility to the blocking of a proposed concert by the rock group Electric Light Orchestra, regarded as satanic by some evangelicals). The 1994 IRA and loyalist ceasefires also highlighted the emergence of new loyalist political parties (the Progressive Unionist Party linked to the UVF, and the smaller Ulster Democratic Party linked to the UDA) led by articulate ex-prisoners (notably David Ervine (qv)) who presented themselves as secular, progressive alternatives to the DUP and accused Paisley of repeatedly inciting loyalists to provide muscle for his threats, then evading responsibility for their actions and denouncing them. These views were not, however, universally shared by loyalists; in July 1995 the first of a series of annual protests over official attempts to divert an Orange church parade at Drumcree on the outskirts of Portadown saw Paisley and the UUP constituency MP David Trimble joining the protests, which were also marked by the involvement of the local UVF leader Billy Wright (qv), a former free presbyterian, who subsequently seceded to form the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF). Both the LVF and the DUP accused the PUP and UDP of being decoy groups led by left-wing atheists and subservient to, if not created by, the state apparatus. Over the subsequent three to four years of protests, rumours of contacts between Paisleyite elements and dissident loyalists circulated although Paisley and the DUP maintained that their involvement was limited to legitimate political protest and they had no influence over the LVF; they called Wright a religious ‘backslider’.
Trimble was elected UUP leader in September 1995 and pursued further contacts with the governments, culminating in all-party talks 1997–8 (after new elections leading to ten parties being represented). Paisley (in alliance with the United Kingdom Unionist Party led by Robert McCartney) withdrew from the negotiations which led to the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. The UUP blamed Paisley’s absence for some features of the Agreement unpalatable to unionist voters (such as the rapid release of paramilitary prisoners, on which the loyalist parties – whose support was necessary to secure a unionist majority for the deal – sided with Sinn Féin). As Paisley protested outside government buildings during the final negotiations leading to the signing of the Agreement, loyalist protestors greeted him with cries of ‘Cheerio’. The endorsement of the Agreement in simultaneous referenda in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was seen by some commentators as indicating Paisley’s political eclipse. This proved premature.
At the subsequent 1998 assembly elections, the UDP and PUP failed to establish themselves as serious rivals to the DUP, while many middle-class unionists who had voted in the referendum failed to turn out. A number of younger UUP activists, led by the Westminster MP for Lagan Valley, Jeffrey Donaldson, had called for a No vote in the Northern Ireland referendum which ratified the Agreement, as had a majority of UUP Westminster MPs. Although the UUP assembly party was overwhelmingly pro-Agreement, many younger UUP activists opposed it and eight non-DUP opponents of the Agreement (five UKUP, three independent) were elected with the support of discontented UUP voters who subsequently drifted to the DUP. The formation of an executive on which the four largest parties including Sinn Féin were represented in proportion to their vote, headed by Trimble as first minister and Seamus Mallon (1936–2020) as co-equal deputy first minister followed. It was noted, however, that the DUP chose to take up its two seats on the executive, when refusal would have left the UUP in a minority and made its situation politically untenable.
Each step in the implementation of the Agreement (including controversies over such issues as the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and the replacement of the RUC by a new force deploying neutral symbolism) saw tensions between nationalists and the UUP, marked by bitterly-fought debates in the assembly (which was suspended from 14 October 2002 although elections were held in November 2003) and divisions on the unwieldy UUP governing body, reinforcing the sense of Trimble’s weakness and a feeling that only the DUP (and Sinn Féin, which was rapidly overtaking the SDLP among nationalists) could deliver a lasting settlement. At the 2001 general election the DUP won five Westminster seats to the UUP’s six, after the 2003 assembly election three UUP MLAs (including Donaldson and Arlene Foster) defected to the DUP, making it the largest party in the assembly, and at the 2005 general election the DUP won ten seats and the UUP one, with Trimble defeated and resigning as leader. In local elections on the same day the DUP clearly outpaced the UUP while Sinn Féin emerged as the largest nationalist party.
In 2004 Paisley nearly died from cardiac illness, and thereafter was noticeably thinner and walked with a stoop. (By this time he generally appeared in public wearing a suit and tie rather than clerical clothes.) Paisley later told several political figures that this near-death experience had given him a desire to establish his place in history as a peacemaker; while for much of his career he had spoken intermittently of delivering a lasting settlement to the conflict, he appears to have developed a new determination to compromise – though as late as 2006 he publicly disavowed compromise with Sinn Féin. Paisley first met Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in 2004, and after the 2005 general election was appointed to the British Privy Council. The DUP now claimed UUP pusillanimity had made it necessary for the DUP to negotiate with Sinn Féin to prevent the two governments controlling Northern Ireland over the heads of the unionists. After the completion of IRA decommissioning, in October 2006 Paisley concluded the St Andrews Agreement, involving Sinn Féin recognition of the new Police Service of Northern Ireland; procedural amendments reduced the ability of one party to disrupt the executive and strengthened the biggest unionist and nationalist parties at the expense of rivals within their respective blocs. After an assembly election on 7 March 2007, which strengthened the DUP and Sinn Féin, a new Northern Ireland Executive was formed on 8 May with Paisley as first minister and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin as deputy first minister. Only a small minority of activists, notably the MEP Jim Allister (b. 1953) left the DUP in protest at the agreement. Most of these joined the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), a new party led by Allister, but although Allister was elected as an MLA for North Antrim in the new assembly elections held to confirm the Agreement and the TUV returned some local councillors (mainly in Co. Antrim), the party was seen as little more than a one-man band.
Paisley basked in the international praise which he received as a peacemaker and developed a good-humoured relationship with McGuinness which led to their being nicknamed ‘the Chuckle Brothers’ (a reference to a popular British duo of entertainers). The Free Presbyterian Church was less amused, and this was compounded by Paisley’s appearance at events with catholic religious dimensions (notably the launch of the memoirs of catholic activist and former MEP Dana Rosemary Scallon, and a scouting event at which a prayer was offered by a catholic priest). In January 2008 after a campaign led by Rev. Ivan Foster, Paisley was pressurised into stepping down as moderator. This experience left the Paisleys with a strong sense of ingratitude and betrayal, intensified by the circumstances surrounding his resignation as first minister in May 2008. Paisley had earlier stated that he intended to serve a full four years as first minister and to contest North Antrim at the next Westminster general election, although his physical frailty was noticeable, he paid little attention to administration and was prone to losses of memory. His position, however, was weakened by the resignation as a junior minister of his son Ian Paisley Jr (on whom his father relied for assistance in official duties) in February 2008 over an alleged conflict of interest in lobbying for North Antrim businessmen. Paisley later claimed that he was pressurised into retirement by a virtual ultimatum delivered by senior DUP members including Peter Robinson, who succeeded him as party leader and first minister. (This inadvertently saved Paisley from leaving office amidst the global economic crash following autumn 2008).
Paisley retired from the House of Commons at the 2010 Westminster general election and became a life peer as Lord Bannside. Ian Paisley Jr succeeded him as MP for North Antrim, decisively defeating Jim Allister. On 18 December 2011 he preached his final sermon at the Martyrs’ Memorial Church, to a congregation bussed in from across the province to guarantee maximum attendance. He suffered further heart attacks in 2011 and 2012, and ceased to attend the Lords. In a series of television interviews in 2014 Paisley and his wife expressed a sense of bitterness at his depositions as moderator and first minister, claiming that he could have carried out his duties for a longer period had he not been betrayed by former friends and colleagues. Paisley remained in contact with McGuinness after retirement. Paisley also privately downplayed his former remarks on the catholic threat, remarking that young people in the Republic had abandoned catholicism just as their Northern counterparts had forgotten the Troubles.
On 13 October 1956 Paisley married Eileen Cassills, a typist (who served as a Protestant Unionist councillor for the St George’s ward of Belfast from 1967, represented East Belfast in the 1973–4 assembly and the 1975–6 Constitutional Convention, and became Baroness Paisley of St George’s in 2006). They had three daughters and twin sons. Their daughter Rhonda was a DUP member of Belfast Corporation and became known as an artist and writer, while son Kyle became a free presbyterian minister.
Paisley died in the manse on Cyprus Avenue (which elements within the church had been pressurising him to vacate) on 12 September 2014. He was buried in the graveyard of Ballygowan Free Presbyterian Church, Co. Down, after a private funeral. These arrangements were seen as reflecting alienation from the DUP and Free Presbyterian Church, whose leading members were not invited, though a public memorial service was held in the Ulster Hall on 19 October.
As one of the emblematic figures of the Troubles, Paisley is portrayed or mentioned in passing in numerous literary works concerning the Northern Ireland conflict ranging from pulp thrillers (W. A. Ballinger [pseudonym of William Howard Baker, 1925–1991] The green glassy slopes (1969) where a Paisley-like figure leads rioters to burn the shipyard and is consumed in the flames, still preaching) to literary fiction (Maurice Leitch’s Gilchrist (1994) is a reworking of James Hogg’s 1824 study of Calvinist fanaticism and antinomianism Confessions of a justified sinner, involving a highly fictionalised version of the Lyons affair and with a Spanish-based loyalist racketeer as demonic doppelganger of the Paisley character), poetry (in ‘The new siege’ (1970), a section of John Montague’s The rough field (1972) evoking the 1969 Battle of the Bogside, Paisley appears as ‘a black Cuchulain/ bellowing against/ the Scarlet Whore’ and as the embodiment of ‘bull-voiced bigotry’ uncontrollable by the mediocrities of Stormont) and film (in The Journey – directed by Mick Hamm, 2016 – a fictionalised depiction of the establishment of trust between Paisley and Martin McGuinness, Paisley is played by Timothy Spall with Colm Meaney as McGuinness).
Paisley’s role in the final settlement was certainly significant – had he died without concluding a compromise any settlement would almost certainly have produced a larger secession of hardliners, who could have invoked his memory, and Paisley’s public appearances with McGuinness and cheerful meetings with ministers from the Republic of Ireland gave the strongest possible signal that the Troubles were over. Discontented former associates ranged from those like Ivan Foster who preferred to recall him as a mighty preacher exposing apostasy, to Clifford Smyth who commented ‘I now believe that his only consideration was to get to the top of the heap and that he used religion and politics as a route to power’ (Belfast Telegraph, 13 September 2014). Other scholars (notably Steve Bruce, who negotiated special access to Paisley and his associates and whose books are vital sources for their worldview and preferred self-image) argue that Paisley was generally consistent and that his professed fundamentalist beliefs should be taken seriously. It is arguable, however, that Paisley was not so much a fundamentalist – in the sense of an ideologue prizing consistent beliefs – as a revivalist evoking and driven by emotion within a general (and adjustable) framework of attitudes.
Obituarists emphasised Paisley’s conversion to peacemaking; this was taken up by a number of republican commentators who contrasted Paisley’s irenic attitude during his brief term as first minister with the more grudging and intransigent approach of his successors. It was also pointed out (generally by Irish commentators) that having built his career on accusing successive unionist leaders of betrayal by seeking to conciliate moderate nationalists, Paisley had ended his career by going into government with a party linked to the IRA at a time when unionism was politically and demographically weaker than ever before. (The conclusion of the St Andrews Agreement just before the 2007 dáil election had also been expected to strengthen Sinn Féin electorally in the Republic of Ireland, though this did not happen). The description of the 1998 agreement as ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’ was coined by the SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon to criticise Sinn Féin, but it applied equally to Paisley. Some commentators argued that Paisley had played a decisive role in the outbreak of the Troubles; without his support network, verbal violence and ability to channel and amplify protestant fears and resentments, O’Neill or Faulkner might have faced down the hardliners and achieved a manageable settlement which could have allowed for peaceful progress. Others say this underestimates the zero-sum conflicts built into the Northern Ireland political system from its foundation, and the mediocrity and short-sightedness of the unionist electorate and leadership. Several nationalist letter-writers responded to his death by regretting his birth.
Paisley’s political longevity left him to some extent a man out of his time. When he died the Harland and Wolff shipyards whose thousands of workers he had once sought to evangelise had been reduced to an engineering facility employing no more than a few hundred. Ireland as a whole had become much more secularised. Churches, catholic and protestant, were much less important as social centres – displaced by popular culture – or as moral guides; street-preachers were less prominent (though some, occasionally including Paisley until his last years, still spoke on Donegall Square or Royal Avenue on Saturdays). The Ulster sabbath was no longer sustained by law, and the sexual revolution was very much in evidence. The DUP retained a strong evangelical presence, but this was not mirrored among the electorate, and some socially conservative representatives claimed that the post-Paisley leadership saw them as an embarrassment; it seemed likely that the Free Presbyterian Church, and the party evangelicals, would follow the traditional fundamentalist cycle in which a period of intense public activity which fails to transform society is followed by withdrawal from the wider society (in diminished numbers) to concentrate on building a pure remnant (until new pressures lead to renewed public involvement). After the DUP played a significant role in the 2016 UK referendum vote to leave the EU and the inconclusive 2017 UK general election, when a minority Conservative government produced a minority Conservative government dependent on DUP MPs, hostile commentators criticised its social conservatism (notably on abortion) and cited Paisley’s fiery rhetoric, with particular reference to the ‘Save Ulster from sodomy’ campaign. The DUP leadership replied that these were historical matters and they were now a very different party. Malachi O’Doherty commented that if the Paisley of 1969 reappeared in the much more secularised Belfast of 2019, he would be dismissed as a joke.
Some pessimistic analysts suggest, however, that in certain respects Paisley may be a harbinger of the future of politics in the developed world. This view maintains that in societies where power is seen as lying with globalised technocratic elites remote from the bulk of the electorate, is likely to give increasing influence to populist demagogues seen as beyond the pale of respectability but gaining electoral support by playing on the fears and resentments of previously dominant ethnic groups and other sections of society who see themselves as neglected and under threat from uncontrollable social trends. Such demagogues may not share Paisley’s particular cultural and religious allegiances, but resemble him, nonetheless.