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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

To the British, who Paisley contends have never really understood Northern Ireland, his language and attacks on the church often comes across as archaic and crude. He has never left his audiences in any doubt of his views on the Irish Republic and the Catholic Church. Both are the ``enemy,'' he told a recent Democratic Unionist rally at Lisburn, near Belfast.

The real reason for the Anglo-Irish agreement, he roared, has ``nothing to do with the ballot box. Nothing to do with unionism. Nothing to do with political aspirations. It has to do with the one sinister institution on this island, the institution that has fomented opposition to the Union Jack and British democracy in this island from Day 1, and that institution is the Church of Rome.''

Paisley's unabashed attacks on the Catholic Church are an anathema to the British government, which seeks reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

At one time, London would have preferred to see Paisley quietly disappear from the political scene. Not anymore.

The possibility that he might be overtaken by more-extreme Protestant elements now frightens the British government. The conventional political wisdom among British officials is that Paisley -- and his more moderate partner, the leader of the Official Unionists, James Molyneaux -- must be saved at all costs if the paramilitaries are to be controlled.

Yet neither Britain nor Paisley and Mr. Molyneaux have found an acceptable formula to negotiate the way out of the impasse. Britain won't scrap or suspend the Anglo-Irish agreement, but unless it does, Molyneaux and Paisley refuse to meet with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government. Paisley contends that Mrs. Thatcher must eventually come to recognize the political writing on the wall. He is confident that, given the Protestant majority's opposition to the agreement, the province will prove ungovernable for the Thatcher administration.

``You can't have the majority of the population of that part of the United Kingdom opting completely out of recognition of the government,'' he says.

On the question of negotiations, Paisley is adamant that unionists are not prepared to meet ``in the cage of the Anglo-Irish agreement.'' He repeats his plea for ``talks about talks'' to secure a negotiating framework, but insists that, while negotiations are going on, the Anglo-Irish accord cannot be implemented.

Asked what would happen if Thatcher refused to budge, and all constitutional means of protest were exhausted, he replies, ``There will be confrontation, because the people of Northern Ireland are not going to be pushed into a united Ireland.'' The British government holds that eventual unification of the province with the Republic of Ireland is not the objective of the Anglo-Irish accord, but many Protestants believe otherwise.

Asked about his remarks at the Lisburn rally the previous evening -- about whether he was truly willing to ``go over the top'' if confrontation arose -- Paisley replies, ``Exactly.''

He insists that this is not a dangerous remark to make, so long as the Protestants have disciplined leadership.

Paisley has always been regarded as a leader willing to take his followers up to the brow of the hill, but so far, he has always pulled back from the brink. The question now is, given the threat of Protestant paramilitaries gaining the upper hand, would he really be prepared to march over the top?

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