The Reverend Ian Paisley, for thirty years a key figure in the Northern Ireland Protestant community, is to attend this year’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities at the White House. This news item brought to my mind a story from the late 1970s. I believe it is a true story: I read it in a respectable newspaper at the time and it stuck in my mind at once. I shall have to give it to you from memory, though, as I have not been able to locate the original.
The British Prime Minister at that time was one James Callaghan. “Sunny Jim,” as he was known, was a back-slapper — a bluff, hearty, can’t-we-all-get-along sort of chap. He was not an especially good Prime Minister, but everyone seemed to like him.
Sunny Jim sooner or later had to go to Northern Ireland and meet with “community leaders.” All modern British Prime Ministers have to. The official name of the country of which they are chief executive is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” and they can hardly ignore the last two words, though they would dearly like to. For eighty years, British politicians have regarded Northern Ireland as a snake pit, a problem to which there is no hope of ever finding a solution. A few years before Callaghan, another British politician, Reginald Maudling, had returned to London from his first visit to Ulster to be asked, by a reporter, what he thought could be done about the situation there. “Nothing,” he replied, “Nothing whatsoever. They are all mad.” Few of Her Majesty’s ministers have spoken so bluntly, but it’s what they — along with most other mainland British — all think.
Anyway, off went Jim Callaghan to meet with those “community leaders.” One of them was Ian Paisley. Now, Paisley is a Protestant of the most fundamentalist sort, founder of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster. He detests Catholicism, routinely refers to the Catholic Church as a limb of Satan, to the Pope as the Scarlet Whore of Rome, and so on. At their meeting, he delivered a long harangue to Callaghan along those lines, warning him of the mortal peril their nation was in from the advancing armies of Popery.
Callaghan put up with it for a while, then, when Paisley paused for breath, interrupted in his very best oil-on-troubled-waters voice: “Come, come, Mr. Paisley. Are we not all the children of God?”
Paisley: “No, Sir. We are the children of wrath.”
Theologically speaking, Paisley’s remark is well-founded. Paisley’s congregation — the “Frees” broke away from the Irish Presbyterian Church 50 years ago this month — is part of the Calvinist tradition, whose doctrines take the omnipotence and omniscience of God to their logical conclusions. If God really is all-powerful, then nothing men can do is likely to be very impressive to him. His natural inclination must be to send us all off to eternal damnation, because of Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. If any of us are to be saved, it can only be by God’s gift, since we are incapable of winning His favor though our own efforts. And if any of us are to be saved, God already knows who, since he knows everything.
People who follow these doctrines are naturally inclined to think that they themselves have a better than average chance of salvation, since they at least have grasped the Truth, while outsiders are lost in ignorance. It is a short step from there to the notion of an elect, a chosen people, battered and besieged in this world, but destined for glory in the next. You could hardly invent a theology better suited to the position of the Ulster Protestants, one of the most unloved of all the world’s minority peoples. Nor is it surprising that the situation in Northern Ireland keeps producing uncanny parallels with that in the Middle East. In the words of a Presbyterian historian*:
Congregations could easily identify with Israel, taking possession of the promised land, threatened by the hostility of its fierce inhabitants.
I confess to a fondness for the Ulster Protestants, with whom I have some slight connections. It is true that they live on land taken from others 400 years ago, but I cannot see why any American should think less of them for that … Paisley’s ferocious doctrines are a minority taste — some 14,000 congregants among Ulster’s 950,000 Protestants, far more of whom are Episcopalians — and have never influenced public policy. Most of what you have heard about discrimination against Catholics in Ulster is lies put out by Sinn Féin, a terrorist movement organized along Leninist lines, which has, since its creation 95 years ago, allied itself enthusiastically with every enemy of western civilization, from Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler to Colonel Gaddafi.
Ulster Protestants are a slow, stolid, quiet, decent, law-abiding people, unstylish and unfashionable. They have produced few intellectuals — scanning my bookshelves, I see only one Ulster Protestant novel, Sam Keery’s Lilliburlero, which is not very good. They are desperately deficient in media and propaganda skills, at which their enemies excel. They hardly belong in the modern world at all.
All this is changing, of course. Just as pinched, poor, righteous old Catholic Ireland is a fast-fading memory (see Mary Kenny’s very good book on this, titled Goodbye to Catholic Ireland), so the Ulstermen are gradually being modernized and urbanized. Like many Israelis — the parallels really are unavoidable — they want to live a normal life in a modern country. Whether their enemies will allow this is still, as with the Israelis, an open question.
Now approaching his 75th birthday, Paisley remains the most popular politician in Ulster: in the European elections of June 1999, when the province voted as a single unit, Paisley got 28.4 per cent of the vote, more than any other candidate. Very few of those who voted for him share his theological convictions. They support him because he has stood up for them, fearlessly and consistently, through all these years of torment and betrayal, when they have been badly in want of people to stand up for them. I doubt that will be enough to get him a seat next to George Bush at any White House function; but where Ian Paisley comes from, plain speaking, fierce integrity, and the courage to face down the world’s cruelest, most amoral terrorist gangs, still count for something.
* R.F.G. Holmes, Our Irish Presbyterian Heritage (Belfast, 1985).