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Ian Paisley: (loud) voice for N. Ireland Protestants

By David WinderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 6, 1986


IN physical stature, in power of voice, and in political longevity, he outweighs, outblasts, and outlasts them all. Meet the Rev. Ian R. K. Paisley, the Jerry Falwell of right-wing, evangelical Protestantism in Northern Ireland.

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Remember Bernadette Devlin, James Chichester-Clark, Gerry Fitt, William Whitelaw, William Craig, and Brian Faulkner? These were the names, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, that captured headlines when the ``troubles'' of Northern Ireland erupted in 1969.

Today, in Northern Ireland, they are only names in the history books. But not Ian Paisley.

At a crowded news conference soon after the signing of the historic Anglo-Irish agreement last year, which granted the Republic of Ireland a consultative role in the operation of Northern Ireland, he vowed he would ``see off'' Tom King, the then-newly appointed British secretary for Northern Ireland, just as he had seen off all Mr. King's predecessors. ``And I will still be here.''

Leader of the hard-line Protestant Democratic Unionist Party, Mr. Paisley is a scourge of the British government, b^ete noire of Northern Ireland Catholics, and an irritant, if not outright embarrassment, to many moderate Protestants. He has been branded a bigot and a fascist, even by many Protestants.

And, to an organist in a Catholic church in a working-class neighborhood here, Paisley is the best recruiting agent for the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA). ``Every time he attacks the Catholic Church, he drives hundreds of Catholics into the waiting arms of the IRA. He would never be assassinated by the IRA,'' the organist says. ``He's too useful to them alive.''

Yet many Protestants who say they would not vote for Paisley often feel that he speaks for them when speaking out against the Anglo-Irish agreement. Most Protestants, known as ``unionists,'' favor continuing the tie between the province and Britain. After the accord was signed last November, it was thought Paisley was being overtaken politically by his more hard-line deputy, Peter Robinson. But Mr. Robinson lost ground, because he failed to distance himself enough from Protestant extremist violence.

In a curious way, Paisley -- the traditionally militant Protestant -- is now viewed as a moderate.

Even some middle-of-the-road Protestants who previously ignored Paisley now wonder if he may be the only viable political game in town. Such a development, observers say, is symptomatic of the slide to the far right in Northern Irish politics.

Although Paisley says the province is rapidly reaching the end of constitutional politics, he insists that consultation -- not confrontation -- is the solution. He ``utterly rejects and condemns violence.''

Paisley's speeches are a mixture of political demagoguery and fire-and-brimstone religious revivalism. A biblical cadence characterizes many of his political statements. The Anglo-Irish accord, he said in an interview, ``shall fall, and great shall be the fall of it.''

Despite his attacks on the institution of the Catholic Church, demographers say that Paisley's huge majorities could not be possible unless some Catholics were voting for him. This could be a reflection on his tireless constituency work.