“He began as the militant. He ended as the peace-maker,” says Tony Blair of fiery preacher.
“He began as the militant. He ended as the peace-maker.”
So said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday of Ian Paisley, former leader of Ulster’s Democratic Unionist Party, who has died at the age of 88.
Born in Armagh in 1926, the son of a Baptist minister and a Scottish mother, he grew up in Ballymena and followed in the family business, delivering his first sermon in a County Tyrone mission hall at the age of 16. Educated at the South Wales Bible College and Belfast’s Reformed Presbyterian Theological College, he was just 25 years old when in 1951 he founded the Free Presbyterian Church which today boasts 15,000 members.
Steeped in unionist politics, in 1959 he led his first explicitly political rally in Belfast’s shipyard. Under the banner of “Ulster Protestant Action,” which he had helped found three years earlier, he declared his opposition to a ban on a march by the Orange Order through a small Catholic neighborhood. Northern Ireland’s then Prime Minister feared that allowing the provocative march would generate sympathy for the then feeble IRA, but Paisley would have none of that, declaring, “There are no nationalist areas in Northern Ireland. If necessary the Protestants in the Queen’s Island will go to Dungiven and march behind the Union Jack.”
The 1959 rally was followed by riots and attacks on Catholic-owned businesses, establishing a pattern that would be followed time and again throughout his career—most famously when, in 1964, Paisley provoked Belfast’s worst rioting in decades when police removed an Irish flag from an election office in response to Paisley’s threat to do so himself.
The mid-1960s also saw the beginning of Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement, which sought to end discrimination against Catholics. Paisley characterised the response of Captain Terrence O’Neill, the then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, as appeasement. In 1968, he earned a second spell in prison after organizing a demonstration that cut short a civil rights march. Paisley’s first conviction had been for unlawful assembly, after riots ensued following a 1966 parade to Belfast’s General Presbyterian Assembly, where he insulted dignitaries for their “Romanizing tendencies.”
In many ways a 17th-century firebrand, much of Paisley’s career was built on anti-Catholic rhetoric. When Pope John XXIII died in 1963, Paisley celebrated that “this Romish man of sin is now in Hell,” and he habitually referred to subsequent popes as “Old Red Socks” and “the Scarlet Woman of Rome.” In 1988, he was famously bundled out of the European Parliament by several of his fellow MEPs including Otto von Hapsburg, son of the last emperor of Austria, after he barracked Pope John Paul II as an “anti-Christ.” For Paisley, the Church was “the whore of Babylon,” while Catholics, he said in 1969, “breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin.”
Such inflammatory language found a ready audience among Ulster’s Protestants, but others looked on aghast: In 1981, the United States’ State Department revoked his visa on the basis of his “divisive rhetoric.” Enoch Powell, the then Ulster Unionist MP for South Down, described Paisley as “the most resourceful, inveterate, and dangerous enemy of the Union,” posing a bigger threat to the United Kingdom than Britain’s own Foreign Office and the IRA combined.
The IRA, which had been almost moribund prior to rioting and other acts of violence that marked unionist responses to the civil rights movement, were only too happy to allow Paisley to continue in his fulminations. IRA leader Dáithí Ó Conaill remarked in the 1970s that, “there’s no way we would kill Ian Paisley . . . he’s the best recruiting sergeant we’ve got.”