Ian Paisley and the politics of purity

Ian PaisleyOn hearing of the death yesterday of Ian Paisley, I went back and re-read the chapter I wrote on Paisleyism in my book Evangelicalism and National Identity in Ulster 1921-98. [I see it is a bargain at £132.50!]

The title of the chapter was ‘”Ourselves Alone”: Paisleyism and the Politics of Purity’. It feels like it was written in a previous lifetime and sparked some thoughts below.

Tributes pouring in for the ‘big man’ have pretty well all revolved around two things: the wit, humour and warmth of the man in person; and the fact of his finally, and remarkably, doing the ‘right thing’ and participating in power-sharing with Sinn Fein.

There is of course no little irony that this move –  coupled with his bonhomie relationship with Martin McGuinness – eventually cost him the leadership of the party he founded. For it was Paisley who, from the late 60s onwards, dispatched one Unionist leader after another for ‘betraying’ the cause of Ulster by doing some sort of deal with the British or the Irish Nationalists. Finally the ultimate outsider ended up centre-stage and did what he had vitriolically attacked those leaders for doing – dealing with the reality of some sort of power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland.

His later alienation from the DUP, and relative estrangement from the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster which he also founded, seemed to have left him feeling bitter and betrayed. That last interview he did on the BBC with Eamon Mallie seemed to surprise many people who, making assumptions about his joking around with McGuinness, jumped to the attractive conclusion that Paisley had suddenly become an avuncular liberal who had left behind those problematic and divisive religious and political convictions.

I don’t think I would revise too much of what I said back in 2003. His was a personal and political identity forged in conflict; given shape and content by separation from the impure Other. The Other included the mother of all harlots Rome,  ‘liberal’ (!) Irish Presbyterians, the WCC, Methodists, Baptists, the British, the Irish Govt, Irish nationalism, Irish Republicanism, weak Unionists, even the Orange Order, and, towards the end, fellow DUP leaders like Peter Robinson who turned, Brutus-like, on their leader.

Paisley’s sense of persecuted righteous prophet was there in that BBC interview. His career was built on personalized politics. In 2003 I looked at some of his rhetoric and concluded that by it

Paisley establishes that hostility to him is equivalent, not only to hostility to Christ, but to biblical truth, the values of the Reformation, and Ulster’s place within the United Kingdom. The power of ideology lies not only in its connection of contemporary political events with dramatic spiritual battles, but in its fusion of traditional Ulster siege mythology with Paisley’s own destiny and actions. He has personalized the Ulster unionist myth of the persecuted faithful. In a sense, his whole politico-religious career has been a conscious re-enactment of the past. (179)

The remarkable success of Paisleyism, I argued, was built primarily on it being a particular form of nationalism that was organized around a theological core of deeply held evangelical beliefs. The result was an innovative cocktail of fundamentalism and an intense localised form of nationalism. There is no room for doubt, complexity and shades of opinion within a nationalist myth. This was why, in a BBC vox pop after his death, ordinary Protestants, one after another, primarily talked of him as a great leader / defender of Ulster etc.  The breadth of his support was political and nationalistic rather than being based on his faithfulness to the Reformation solas.

At the end of the chapter I wrote that Paisleyism would lose its coherence and potency without the threat of imminent betrayal. I think this has happened. Paisleyism had gone as a movement well before yesterday. The DUP continues to struggle out of the shadow of the big man and chart its way in a new power-sharing era. A key to the future in the North will be how successful it can be in leaving behind the ‘politics of holiness’ – as well as how successful Sinn Fein can be on the other side of leaving behind its own toxic nationalist myths.

Comments, as ever, welcome

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