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.

So what does he persuade us of? Undoubtedly, that the simplifications of popular journalism are not just unilluminating, but obfuscatory. To take the universally-applied epithet ‘bigot’, the validity of this description is not – as its users seem to think – self-evident. Bruce is at pains to demonstrate, for the benefit of a secular audience, that religious belief cannot be dismissed as unreasonable. It may be strictly ‘irrational’, but any sociology which failed to accept the centrality of religion in many cultures would be crippled. The metaphor of rebirth, crucial to evangelical Protestantism, may be beyond the scope of quantitative analysis: but it is fruitless for the social scientist to rail against people for professing such an experience.

The first half of Bruce’s book is a substantial account of Paisley’s life, which demonstrates beyond cavil that the religious parameters of his career have been impressively constant. Paisley has embodied not merely a conservative religious sense struggling against the secularisation of society at large, not merely a minority denomination at odds with the majority, but a specific Protestantism whose identity was shaped in contradiction of Roman Catholicism. The ‘vituperative sectarian rhetoric’ (as the Observer recently captioned a picture of Paisley) which dismays liberals – ecumenical Christians as well as freethinkers – is a perfectly straightforward statement of traditional fundamentalist views of the Papacy as Antichrist. These views may well be described as bigoted, but the question is whether any useful understanding comes from such description. Bigotry is in the eye of the beholder, and most would be hard put to it to say just where the difference lies between it and any firm religious conviction. As the Oxford Dictionary suggests, ‘a dogmatist in religion is not a long way off from a bigot.’ Dogma itself is a notoriously malleable concept.

If we pursue this point a bit further by asking what is conveyed by the adjective ‘mindless’, commonly attached to Protestant bigotry, it must become clear that what is taken to demonstrate ‘mind’ is not thought but open-mindedness, readiness to compromise. In a word, secular liberalism. This bears on the second set of descriptions pinned to Paisley – ‘rabble-rouser’, ‘demagogue’, and so on. The implicit charge here is that without Paisley the rabble would not have their deplorably illiberal views, or at least would not have a vehicle for mobilising them in the political arena. It does seem rather late to be regretting the irruption of the masses into politics, but liberals feel justified in this case because the ordinary people are so obviously wrong (misled, duped, or whatever).

The academic euphemism for mob rule is ‘populism’, and several respectable analysts have applied this term, more or less cautiously, to the Paisleyite movement. One may suspect that not all have done so in a wholly neutral way: the modern use of the term, as Margaret Canovan has lucidly shown (Populism, 1981), is a fearsome shambles. ‘Populism’ all too often appears as a disapproving broad-brush gesture with sinister undertones. Yet for all its weaknesses, it is a concept which does reflect some of the unfocused gemeinschaft which Paisley calls forth. In prison in 1966 he wrote: ‘We are just a lot of nobodies, and the enemy thought he could trample us out, BUT GOD DELIVERED US.’ Paisley speaks not to the people en masse but to a people: the Unionist people, the godly, the elect. ‘God has a people in this province. There are more born-again people in Ulster to the square mile than anywhere else in the world. This little province has had the peculiar preservation of divine providence.’

In this narrow ground lies his strength, and also his limitation. The third set of descriptions has to do with Paisley’s naked or transparent ‘political ambition’ or ‘hunger for power’. Here Dr Bruce does a special service by the care with which he undermines such careless judgments, so weirdly at variance with obvious facts. The widespread idea that Paisley is primarily a conscious imitator of Carson – an idea which will be strengthened, presumably inadvertently, by the absurd photograph on Bruce’s dust-wrapper – rather than of preachers like Henry Cooke and ‘Roaring’ Hugh Hanna, men outside the establishment, is symptomatic of the distortion. In fact, liberals would certainly be happier with Paisley if he were a politician bent on power and thus forced to battle, and compromise, for mainstream support. The salient point about Paisley’s political career is that he has never shown the basic instincts of the politician. He has consistently alienated the educated, decorum-conscious middle class, which looks for ‘statesmanlike’ behaviour in its representatives. As a result, his party is a mere fraction of the Unionist camp.

At this point a digression into the vexed question of Paisley’s ‘qualifications’ might be in order. It is indicative of Bruce’s method that he only touches on the validity of Paisley’s doctorate in a footnote, but his assessment is of a piece with his whole picture. (The same might be said of the ordination issue, which unavoidably figures more centrally in the text.) Here we have someone who was clearly capable of taking a ‘proper’ higher degree, but who chose to do the most disreputable thing instead. What are we to make of this? At one level, it looks like deliberate self-marginalisation. No doubt those who, like Tom Paulin (London Review, 1982), have found in Paisley’s writing the typical autodidact’s ‘combination of earnest pride and deep lack of confidence’ have a point. But this is not merely a matter of individual psychology. Insofar as Paisley demonstrably represents ‘his people’, his marginality has direct collective resonance. The combination of aggressive display with deep-seated insecurity has always been characteristic of Protestant loyalism. ‘Siege mentality’, unsatisfactory though it may be, is a term which does embody one substantial segment of a collective world-picture.

Bruce’s second half moves from an account of Paisley’s life to analysis of the two institutions most closely associated with him, the Free Presbyterian Church and the Democratic Unionist Party. With the reservations spelled out earlier, this part of the book should dispel the common idea that the DUP is simply the Free Presbyterians at the barricades. Bruce provides a sensitive picture of the Church as a movement all too aware of the perils of diversion into political activity, and determined to preserve its spiritual mission. At the same time, conservative Protestants are a group whose demanding moral standards naturally translate into political demands. To a large extent, the DUP gives voice to these demands, but to the extent that it rallies a wider swathe of Protestant opinion, it constantly runs up against the difficulties which the Church’s exclusiveness serves to avoid. The political movement oscillates uneasily between street-level activism, at which Paisley himself excels, and state-level manoeuvring, where his touch is much less sure. No one doubts that the bedrock of its cause is the preservation of Protestantism, via the upholding of ‘the British Throne being Protestant’. But even in Ulster this is not quite a self-sufficient political programme, and there is more reason for doubt over whether the DUP is individualist or collectivist in economic policy, rural or urban in outlook, and so on. What, in particular, does its ‘democratic’ banner mean? Bruce records without explanation the dropping of ‘Protestant’ from the party’s title; he admits that Calvinism sits uneasily with liberal democracy; but his analogy with Leninist ‘democratic centralism’ does not seem entirely apt.

There may well be no final answer to such doubts, and hence no final definition of ‘Paisleyism’. It is noticeable that although Bruce flies this label in the subtitle of his book, his text does not confront the concept head-on. Bruce takes issue with those academics who have written of a Free Presbyterian ‘mentality’ or ‘mind set’. Certainly such concepts do carry the danger of oversimplification: Edward Said has been strongly critical of the alleged ‘Islamic mind-set’ which has formed the treacherous foundation of many dangerous political actions. But to dismiss the mere use of these terms as ‘telling us more about the commentators themselves than about the Free Presbyterians’ is to miss the significance of a whole dimension of modern historiography. To posit mentalités is not to denigrate their possessors; it is rather a way of trying to grasp their often unspoken assumptions. Even the more rigidly mechanistic ‘mind-set’ is a means of charting some part of a largely unknowable mental terrain.

In politics such a ‘set’, far from being a hazy subjective notion, is often strikingly and repeatedly demonstrated. Most conspiracy theories are textbook examples of cognitive dissonance, in which external evidence is adjusted to fit pre-existing conceptual models. And since the protocols of the Elders of Zion there has been no bigger conspiracy theory than the fundamentalist Protestant vision of the Roman Catholic Church as ‘Mystery, Babylon the Great’. Simple functionaries of the Northern Ireland Office may be baffled by the allegation that when they engage in prosaic administrative discussions with their Irish counterparts under the Agreement, they are enlarging the conspiracy, but they need to understand that it is not wild hyperbole: it is meant as a literal interpretation.

We may therefore legitimately believe that it is possible to identify a more definite Paisleyite ‘mind’ than Steve Bruce – with laudable sensitivity to the human variety of his respondents – will accept. But in this project we must start from his insistence that the relationship between Paisley and Paisleyism is not that of creator and creature: if anything, it is the reverse. In a particularly successful chapter on ‘Tradition and Charisma’, Bruce argues the primacy of tradition in Paisley’s appeal. This is obvious enough in a doctrinal sense, but at the political level there is also an established tradition of Independent Unionism which often escapes the notice of those who speak of a ‘Unionist monolith’. By adopting an unusually rigorous definition of charisma, as the capacity to carry followers through radical shifts of policy justified only by the leader’s conviction, he denies that this quality can usefully be applied to Paisley. It may seem perverse to regard Paisley as uncharismatic, but the crucial point to register is the absence of novelty and idiosyncrasy in Paisleyism.

Having got this straight, we come up against the question why the traditions which Paisley articulates have survived their contact with the modern world essentially unscathed. Can we improve on Tom Paulin’s suggestion of a ‘time-warp’ between the 17th and 20th centuries? This is an arresting but not wholly persuasive idea. The persistence of a 17th-century ideological antagonism can be explained by more prosaic social relationships, albeit highly complicated and ramified through many forms of concrete activity. The Churches alone might not have preserved ‘the integrity of their quarrel’, but they have been fringed with other quasi-religious and secular organisational forms, like the great public festivals and parades, the militia tradition and the Orange Order.

These have undergone noticeable changes from time to time; as Bruce observes, the sudden decline of Protestant ‘street theatre’ (mock masses and the like) indicates a real growth in public sophistication. Public banding, which articulates the contractarian spirit identified in David Miller’s Queen’s Rebels (1978), has taken varied forms. An unexpected aspect of the present crisis has been the non-emergence of this respectable vigilantism despite Paisley’s repeated efforts to flourish a ‘third force’. (This, again, demonstrates Paisley’s failure to mobilise the middle classes.) But despite such variations, the core of the Protestant ‘way of life’ has been transmitted, most inexorably, by general socialisation – the whole process of community life from family behaviour to public education. Bruce’s account of the Free Presbyterian schools makes the impulse vividly clear.

At the root of all this is an unusual and rugged compound of politics and religion: what Loyalists call the ‘constitutional’ issue. This is, in fact, the essence of modern nationalism – the demand that the state should reflect and enshrine the culture of the community. The Protestant constitution was established by force of arms and colonial settlement in the 17th century, and has been defended in a frontier siege spirit ever since. As Michael MacDonald’s book never tires of pointing out, it is an inherently divisive spirit, incapable of generating consensus. Protestant loyalty is premised upon Catholic disloyalty, Protestant rightness on Catholic wrongness. But MacDonald’s insistence that colonialism is the beginning and end of the issue produces a narrow and impoverished view of Protestant culture. Religion becomes an epiphenomenon. Incredibly, in a book whose title uses one of Paisley’s most thunderous Old Testament notions, there is virtually no mention of either the Free Presbyterians or even Paisley himself. The DUP appears only as a party competing, for no sensible reason, for part of the Unionist vote.

MacDonald’s unilinear argument simply prevents him from engaging with a complex reality. His book is far from being the ‘fresh, refreshing’ contribution the publisher suggests. Its content is almost wholly conventional, drawing on a selective reading of secondary sources, innocent of original material. It tries to establish its originality by assaulting a grotesque misrepresentation of the present state of academic work on Northern Ireland. It is certainly not lacking in nerve: MacDonald is ready to assert that Paul Bew, the most challenging of modern Ulster-bred historians, ‘cannot appreciate – still less explain – the genuine perversity of Northern Ireland’. But the most serious weakness of this book lies in its failure to engage with its own subtitle. Even if the colonialism thesis is accepted as explaining division, the step to violence requires something more. MacDonald proposes ‘a social order that renders “terrorism” entirely commonplace’, but sees no need to explain how.

‘Terrorism’ (whatever the quotation-marks are supposed to say about it) has, in fact, been very far from commonplace in the history of the North. Violence is by no means natural even to conservative Protestants. Steve Bruce wisely points to the egregious failure of the paramilitaries to raise a coherent political profile or to secure broad endorsement. It is interesting, as he says, that ‘the really quite moderate and bourgeois position of the DUP’ on the morality of violence ‘is often overlooked not just by its critics ... but also by its supporters’. As Tom Gallagher has remarked, in assessing Paisleyism, there has not yet been full-scale civil war: ‘tacit ground rules’ have been observed by both sides. What we have here is a deep ambiguity about means which rests on the contradictory sense of ‘law and order’ amongst mainstream loyalists – ‘Queen’s rebels’. Paisley’s oddly hesitant strategy of response to Hillsborough surely reflects the dilemma of a powerful people whose customary ascendancy has mysteriously dissolved. They will not take the awesome responsibility for re-establishing it by force, but neither can they adapt to the reconstruction of identity which pluralism requires. Until they can rediscover an effective means of political manoevure, they will continue to be defiant, suspicious, inarticulate, uncomprehended.