Irish Protestantism's Bully Pulpit

December 22, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Staff Writer

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- The Rev. Ian R. K. Paisley rises in his pulpit like Captain Ahab in the bow of a whaling boat, a harsh, obsessive, blackclad figure wielding his Bible like a harpoon.

His Moby Dick is unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Irish Republican Army is for him the incarnation of evil, the pope in Rome the Antichrist.

He sees treachery, betrayal and surrender everywhere. He is the implacable foe of compromise to whom great majorities of Protestant, pro-British Ulstermen have turned in past times of crisis.

He believes they will rally around him again as Britain and the Republic of Ireland contemplate a peace plan that will not forbid a united Ireland.

Politicians of every stripe in Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland fear he may be right. They fear his power to sabotage any peace process that hints at concessions to Irish nationalists who want an end to British rule in Northern Ireland.

He rallied as many as 300,000 loyalists against the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. "Maggie's Munich Pact," they called it. It was negotiated by then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish leader Garret FitzGerald.

At 67, Mr. Paisley remains tall and commanding in his pulpit. His hair sweeps back from his square, blocky face in a lacquered gray pompadour. He stands erect, unbending and unyielding.

Tall and commanding

He leads his congregation in singing Psalm 124. His voice is loud, strong and gritty. The psalm here is as political as it is religious:

"If that the Lord had not our cause maintained, if that the Lord had not our right sustained, when cruel men who us decided to slay rose up in wrath to make of us the prey, then certainly they must devour us and swallow quick."

Mr. Paisley is essentially a Bible-believing fundamentalist. He holds an honorary doctorate conferred by Bob Jones Jr., the son of the founder of Bob Jones University, in Greenville, S.C. Mr. Jones laid the cornerstone of Mr. Paisley's Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church here in 1969. Mr. Jones preaches here often.

Mr. Paisley has been coached by the American evangelist. But he has little of the showbiz style of American TV preachers. He's more like a colonel of the Royal Marines than of the Salvation Army.

And he's as much politician as clergyman. He's a member of both the British and European parliaments. He won his seat in the European Parliament in 1979 with the biggest margin in the 12-national Economic Community.

He founded the Democratic Unionist Party. Unionists are loyalists who want to remain part of Britain. The DUP is the most rejectionist of the unionist parties in Northern Ireland. They reject a united Ireland, the goal of republicans and nationalists.

The British flag flies outside Martyrs Memorial Church. Mr. Paisley preaches from a pulpit flanked by the Ulster and the British flags when he leads his congregation in prayer.

"O Father hear thy son's prayers," he intones. "We commit our problems to thee.

"Beset with enemies without and traitors within, we can see the g-rrrrr-reat conspiracy."

His r's start rolling and his vowels begin stretching out as his prayer becomes impassioned.

"We can see the g-rrrr-reat pan-nationalist conspiracy, with the pope at its he-e-ead sending his secret messages to the IRA [Irish Republican Army] for the past two years. We thank you for bringing this hidden thing of darkness into light."

The secret was revealed by the Sunday Mirror, a London tabloid, which reported "exclusively" that Pope John Paul II had appealed to the IRA to lay down their arms. The Mirror reported that the pope relayed his message through "secret channels set up two years ago."

Opposing the pope

"Now he's sent them a special message: PLEEEEASE accept the Downing Street Declaration," the preacher tells his flock.

"Well, when I heard that I shouted hallelujah! For what the pope's for, God is against. What the impostor Antichrist is for, the true Christ is against. It's great to be on the Lord's side."

A few members of his congregation echo his hallelujah. About 400 worshipers have come to his midday service. The meeting house is perhaps half full. There are youngsters and families, but there seem to be a lot of gray heads. They come in their Sunday best. They come, many say, about equally for the preaching and the politics.

"And now, O God," Mr. Paisley prays, "they are going to bring the murderers unto the discussion table even though all their guns are not put away. Because the die has been cast for the total surrender to the enemies of this province."

The Anglo-Irish declaration announced last Wednesday made no mention of when or whether the IRA must turn in their weapons. Mr. Paisley has interpreted the declaration as a surrender.

He shifts seamlessly into prayers of remembrance for the departed of his church: "Remember the Massey family. Mrs. Massey has lost her sister. We commit them to thee."

He is a personable man, his friends say, a likable man, a caring man, a devoted husband and a loving father. He is an admirer of the 18th-century American Puritan Jonathan Edwards. He preaches in the Puritan manner as he flails evil.

"So the ecumenical men are all together . . . and the pope's with them . . . and the Official Unionist leadership are with them. Well, thank God, God's on the throne. We're going to see the greatest exposure of evil men in the coming days."

He proceeds to a 40-minute discourse on a verse from the Epistle of Timothy which has nothing to do with politics. And the service is over. You can buy a tape of the whole thing for about $3.50.

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