Paisley: Religion and Politics in Northern Ireland
Oxford University Press, 2009
312 pp., 38.95
"For God and Ulster"
"For God and Ulster" is a slogan synonymous with Protestant and unionist opposition to the demands of Irish nationalists and republicans. It was the motto of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), formed at the height of unionist opposition to Home Rule in 1912–1914. This paramilitary force was partly subsumed within the British Army as the 36th (Ulster) Division, who were decimated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916."for God and Ulster" implies divine favor, a special relationship between God and Ulster Protestants, and a loyalty to Britain sealed in blood on the battlefields of Europe. Loyalist paramilitaries re-appropriated the motto and the title uvf in the 1960s, but for the past forty years, the person most associated with this set of themes is Ian Paisley, firebrand fundamentalist, militant anti-Catholic, and political leader of remarkable longevity and clarity of purpose. His forceful articulation of the well-worn narrative of Protestant liberty and loyalty against Catholic tyranny and treachery ensured his popularity amongst conservative Protestants and unionists. In recent years, however, he has dramatically shifted his public position. In May 2008 he resigned as First Minister of the devolved government of Northern Ireland, an earlier version of which he helped topple in 1974. More extraordinarily, his partners in government were his sworn enemy, Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). His new rhetoric may be seen in the speech he delivered on the resumption of devolved government in May 2007:
I have sensed a great sigh of relief amongst all our people who want the hostility to be replaced with neighbourliness. The great King Solomon said,
"to every thing there is a season, a time to every purpose under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to break down and a time to build up, a time to get and a time to lose, a time to keep and a time to cast away, a time to love and a time to hate, a time of war and a time of peace."
From the depths of my heart I can say to you today that I believe Northern Ireland has come to a time of peace. A time when hate will no longer rule. How good it will be to be part of a wonderful healing in this province. Today we have begun the work of plenty and we will all look for the great and blessed harvest.
Why Paisley has seemingly abandoned the ethno-religious rhetoric of his contentious past is a question of some importance, and the best place to begin to answer it is Steve Bruce's book, Paisley: Religion and Politics in Northern Ireland (published in hardcover in 2007, with a paperback edition scheduled for 2009). Bruce argues that though Paisley is a man of profound religious conviction and principle, he is essentially a political pragmatist who accepts the separation of church and state as well as the impossibility of legislating for righteousness. As a consequence, it may be suggested that this allowed him to pursue some sort of rapprochement with his enemies as necessary to secure the future of Northern Ireland.
Bruce's is a sympathetic, almost insider's, view of the movement that Paisley has formed and led. It is important to note that this is first and foremost a study of Paisleyism rather than a full-scale biography of Paisley, and one that downplays the importance of personality as a reason for his popularity. The main strength of the book is Bruce's willingness to take religion seriously, which allows him to show that members of Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church are not the grotesque stereotypes retailed by many commentators. In particular, he demonstrates that these fundamentalist Christians have not invented a new set of beliefs to justify their position but are representative of a conservative Protestantism that has long since retreated from public life in Great Britain and Western Europe but which still has resonance for the United States.
This is not Bruce's first foray into the world of Paisleyism. Paisley is a thoroughly revised update of his 1986 study God Save Ulster!, and in the preface he compares the two. He claims that he wrote his first study out of disillusionment with the sidelining of religion and nationalism as motives for human action within the academy, whereas his new book is written in response to the rapid change in the politics of Northern Ireland and his own work on loyalist paramilitaries. Within the context of the more general interest in fundamentalism, Bruce suggests that the rise of Islamic terrorism in particular has somewhat dampened the liberal critiques of Paisley produced in the 1980s, which "have come to seem hysterical" in comparison. In reference to one of these, Bruce thinks that "nagging zeal" rather "persecuting zeal" is more appropriate for Paisley's style of politics: "In 1986 I wanted to stress how Paisleyism differed from secular politics; twenty years on I want to show how Paisleyism differs both from secular politics and from Islamic fundamentalism."
The main result of this move is the inclusion of a chapter, "Paisley and Trouble," that seeks to assess the evidence for the link between Paisleyism and terrorism by asking the deliberately provocative question, "are Ulster evangelicals jihadis?" This chapter is something of a model of cold-eyed detachment and the need to examine systematically the evidence. This leads Bruce to the conclusion that Paisley and all but a handful of his followers are innocent of the charges brought against them, and that evangelical religion in general "inoculates" believers against violence.
It is undoubtedly true that Paisley's rhetoric was significantly less important than car bombs in gaining recruits for loyalist terrorist organizations. However, looking at the other side of the equation, surely his hard-line stance and constant denunciation of his enemies contributed to a polarized society that led to an increased recruitment to the IRA? Bruce does not deal directly with the issue of Paisley's intransigence and how his lack of compromise may have prolonged the conflict. At the same time, a leader must reflect his constituency as well as lead it into new territory, and his obduracy may be a reflection of the deep-seated fear and anger of those Protestants he represents. In that context, Paisley may be judged an astute leader of the community he claims to represent by his eventual willingness to enter power-sharing under the right conditions. Indeed, there was no other unionist leader with the authority to make such a deal with republicans.
The book provides an overview of Paisley's early years as a religious separatist and fundamentalist. It discusses the formation of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster in March 1951 and charts its growth in Chapter 5. Bruce suggests that Paisley's religious and political vision is dominated by two principles: "I am doing God's will" and "You cannot trust the elite." Rather than seeing religious principle as a cloak for a cynical personal agenda, Bruce argues persuasively that religious faith is at the base of Paisley's life, providing him with fortitude, hope, and clarity of purpose. Paisley came to political notice in the 1960s, when he opposed the reforms of the patrician Unionist Prime Minister, Terence O'Neill, whose faltering plans for economic modernization and improving community relations raised the ire of conservative elements within Ulster Protestantism. Bruce provides a summary of Paisley's political career from the formation of the (Ulster) Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in 1971, through its rise to the principal voice of conservative unionism, and its eventual triumph over the Ulster Unionist Party in the elections of 2005. In doing so, Bruce charts the interrelationships between church and party and shows that party unity is based on the fact that the core of the DUP are evangelical Christians, most of whom are members of the Free Presbyterian Church. He also notes that church and party have moved apart in recent years as both have expanded and professionalized.
Paisley's mixture of conservative religion and conservative politics is obviously potent, but it does mask a considerable problem. The 2001 Census showed that only 11,902 people described themselves as Free Presbyterians in comparison with 756,022 other Protestants. Bruce is too good a scholar to ignore the evidence that Paisley's brand of confrontational religion alienates more voters than it attracts, whether they be secular-minded unionists or middle-of-the-road evangelicals. Nevertheless, Paisley has been able to appropriate the leadership of unionism because of a number of factors, including the failure of alternative versions of unionism; his perceived constancy, reliability, and trustworthiness; his anti-cosmopolitanism; and his appeal to an ethnic Protestantism. Indeed, Paisley's electoral triumph in 2005 "owed nothing to religion and everything to a rational response to British government policy."
Bruce's narrative is compelling, but there are two issues that require further reflection—context and representativeness. In terms of providing the background to understanding Paisley, Bruce, as other scholars have done, focuses on the influence of Calvinist theology as disseminated through Presbyterianism. Presbyterian religion is a vital part of Protestantism in the north of Ireland, but it is not the only part. Bruce's discussion of Presbyterianism is based on outdated secondary sources, and he does not really get to grips with the seismic changes that have occurred within Ulster Protestantism from the 18th century onwards, especially the increasing dominance of evangelical religion and how that may have modified the meaning and importance of Calvinism. In particular, there is surprisingly little on the rise of fundamentalism in Ulster and North America in the late 19th century, which, in many of its forms, was anti-Calvinist. Mention is made of the importance to Paisley of W. P. Nicholson (Ulster's Billy Sunday) and the heresy trial of J.E. Davey in 1927, but these are not discussed in detail. Moreover, the pietism and "otherworldliness" of much evangelical religion is sidelined. Astonishingly, no mention is made of the global revival of evangelicalism from the 1950s and rise of otherworldly fundamentalism to political influence in the United States from the 1970s. It is only in a footnote that we are informed that Paisley has a honorary doctorate from Bob Jones University.
The second area that needs to be addressed is the issue of representativeness. Bruce applauds the achievements of the Free Presbyterian Church, noting that its consolidation and growth is part of a broader revival of conservative forms of Christianity within a pattern of general church decline, from 0.7 percent of non-Catholics in Northern Ireland in 1971 to 1.2 percent in 2001. However, the impression is created that evangelicalism and fundamentalism are synonymous with this denomination. As Bruce recognizes, the separatist and oppositional brand of religion that Paisley represents repelled as many evangelicals as it attracted, and it is arguable that the largest evangelical denomination in Northern Ireland today is the mainstream Presbyterian Church of Ireland. The Free Presbyterian Church represents an important and vocal fundamentalist movement within Northern Ireland, but this is only one end of a spectrum of opinion within conservative Protestantism. This includes small groups such as the Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI), which attempted from the late 1980s to reconfigure the relationship between evangelicalism and identity politics. In 1988, econi published For God and His Glory Alone, offering biblical reflection on ten themes: Love, Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Peace, Citizenship, Truth, Servanthood, Justice and Righteousness, Hope, and Repentance. The point to note is that the themes they discussed and the arguments they used to urge their fellow evangelicals to begin to question the automatic conflation of loyalty to God and to Ulster are almost the same as those employed by Paisley in 2007.
It is unfortunate that Bruce was unable to discuss Paisley's decision to enter into a power-sharing arrangement with his erstwhile enemies, Sinn Fein. There were unsubstantiated rumors circulating among evangelicals in Northern Ireland in September 2004, at the time of the Leeds Castle talks about the resumption of devolved government, that a patently unwell Ian Paisley had some sort of religious experience which helped prepare the way for his entry into government with republicans in order to bring peace to Northern Ireland. Whether such a Damascene moment occurred may never be known, but it does not negate the fact that Paisley's decision to become First Minister was a remarkable turnaround. It was applauded by enthusiastic British and Irish governments, grudgingly accepted by moderate nationalists and unionists, and provided a way for republicans to become members of a government of Northern Ireland that effectively rubber-stamped the partition of the island. On Paisley's part, this political change was accompanied by a change in rhetoric, from one of defiance and anti-Catholicism to one of forgiveness and reconciliation. Paisley himself had redefined what "For God and Ulster" meant along the lines advocated by more politically moderate elements within evangelicalism. In some respects, Paisley has moved from fundamentalism to mainstream evangelicalism. Paisley may be the loudest and most intransigent of Ulster evangelicals, but volume alone should not dictate how a complex and often reticent community is portrayed.
Andrew R. Holmes is lecturer in modern Irish history at Queen's University Belfast. He is the author of The Shaping of Ulster Presbyterian Belief & Practice, 1770-1840 (Oxford Univ. Press).
1. cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/politics/docs/dup/ip080507.htm, accessed June 12, 2008.
2. nisranew.nisra.gov.uk/census/Census2001 Output/KeyStatistics/keystats.html, accessed June 17, 2008.
3. Glenn Jordan, Not of This World? Evangelical Protestants in Northern Ireland (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2001).
4. Patrick Mitchel, Evangelicalism and National Identity in Ulster, 1921-1998 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 260-98.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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