Appreciating Paisley

Charles Townshend

  • God save Ulster: The Religion and Politics of Paisleyism by Steve Bruce
    Oxford, 308 pp, £15.00, November 1986, ISBN 0 19 827487 4
  • Children of Wrath: Political Violence in Northern Ireland by Michael MacDonald
    Polity, 194 pp, £19.50, September 1986, ISBN 0 7456 0219 3

‘Eloignez-vous, Monsieur Paisley.’ How many British politicians and functionaries must have echoed the exhortation of the President of the European Parliament on 9 December last year as the Reverend Doctor Ian R.K. Paisley carried out another of his embarrassingly visible protests against the Hillsborough accord. And how many must have wished that they could, with equal ease, cause him to vanish by the magic words: la séance est suspendue. Within hours, British journalists were back in the business of hopeful speculation that Paisley might, by this renewed proof of his crass disregard for correct behaviour, have alienated at least part of his gigantic constituency as a Euro-MP.

Such hopes, whether explicit or implied, show a persistent incapacity to grasp the meaning of Paisley as a political phenomenon, and more especially of the inchoate but irreducible political force known (perhaps misleadingly) as ‘Paisleyism’. Why do British commentators find it so difficult to recognise that Paisley has no interest whatever in cutting a respectable or influential figure in the daughter of parliaments? His denunciation of Strasbourg, and of the European Community – emanating from the Treaty of Rome – as part of the Roman Catholic world conspiracy is dismissed as another instance of his extravagant rhetoric. It cannot be seriously meant. Yet, if it is not, there is a real problem in explaining why it is used, since it evidently alienates the very people who would be needed to give it effect.

Incomprehension of Paisley has been, over the last twenty years, a marked feature of British assessments of events in Northern Ireland. So marked, indeed, that it must be taken as an indicator of British incomprehension of the ‘Irish problem’ as a whole. (Steve Bruce rightly points out that the use of the word ‘problem’ itself implies a typically British misconception. ‘Problems’ have solutions; British political culture has taken shape round the idea that all public issues are problems in this sense. By contrast, ‘conflicts’ merely have outcomes – the involuntary transfer of goods from one side to the other.) Paisley has been described as a bigot, a rabble-rouser, a politician hungry for power, a latterday, third-rate Carson, without the education and social status of the old leader. His religious convictions have been derided as bogus, his ordination denied, his doctorate laughed to scorn, his Church denounced (often by freethinkers) as unChristian.

Sometimes there is a hint of desperation in this unrelenting mockery, to which those (comparatively few) academic analysts who have directly confronted the Paisley phenomenon have not been entirely immune. More ‘scientific’ terminology may be applied – ‘authoritarian’, ‘fascistoid’, ‘reactionary’, ‘populist’ – but the gain in objective understanding is often more apparent than real. A shortage of hard research data from the grass roots of Protestant Loyalism has led academics to employ intuition, not to say prejudice, more freely than they would normally regard as desirable.

Because of this, it can be said without hesitation, and with gratitude, that Steve Bruce’s study of Paisley is a major contribution to understanding. By the same token, however, some disappointment must also be registered. This research is far from conclusive, and in important places is alarmingly sketchy. Dr Bruce comes out with such remarks as ‘I have very little knowledge about why ordinary members joined’; ‘in the absence of any extensive survey material on the attitudes of DUP voters, we can only reason backwards’; ‘unfortunately, we do not have any good survey material which would allow us to compare the beliefs of different class and regional groups’; ‘unfortunately, I have no information about membership turnover’; ‘my impression, based solely on those farmers whom I have met, is that supporters of Free Presbyterianism tended to be small to medium farmers with only one or two labourers.’ These revelations, whose frankness some will admire, others will find worrying. They present the reader with a challenge: do we trust the author to draw the right conclusions from fragmentary evidence? The authorial voice is no stranger to Bruce’s expository style, which, like his structure, is easy-going. He does not immediately or invariably inspire absolute confidence. Overall, however, his manifest honesty is reassuring, and his argument persuasive.

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