In 1969, while he was serving a prison sentence for unlawful assembly, Ian Paisley sent this message to his congregation:

I rejoice with you in the rich blessings of last weekend. I knew that our faithful God would pour out His bounty. In prayer in this cell I touched the Eternal Throne and had the gracious assurance of answered prayer. What a joy to hear from Mr Beggs of a £1,000 gift for the pulpit. Hallelujah! May that pulpit be the storm centre of the great hurricane of revival. Oh for a tempest of power, a veritable cyclone of blessing, Lord, let it come!

Eight years later, the preacher rose up in that enormous pulpit and waved a copy of a historical study which had just been published. ‘Brethren and sisters in Christ,’ he shouted, ‘here is a great book that tells the Truth about Ulster. Go home, friend, and read it.’

The book was The Narrow Ground by A.T.Q. Stewart: did the book inspire Paisley, or did the voice of Old Ravenhill inspire The Narrow Ground? Accompanying this question is the problem of the relation of middle-class Unionism to working-class Unionism, or – to put it in cultural terms – the relation of Establishment and anti-Establishment ideas within Unionism. As Unionism cracks and splinters, a form of class politics begins to emerge – a populism in the case of Paisleyism and a form of socialism in the Ulster Defence Association.

For the UDA the problem is essentially one of identity: ‘The Prods have been brainwashed into believing that they were strictly a British Community, have no Irish or Ulster traditions and therefore didn’t need to learn Irish dancing, Gaelic or folk music.’ Thus Andy Tyrie, the leader of the UDA. Tyrie supports this view with a historical argument according to which there was an ancient British people (‘British’ in the non-imperial sense) who were called the Cruthin and who existed in Ulster long before the 17th-century settlement. He also emphasises his Ulsterness by having a photograph of the statue of Cuchulain in the GPO above his desk. Cuchulain is an authentically Ulster hero in a way that Carson – a Dubliner who privately despised the province – never can be. In effect, the UDA looks back to a dreamtime populated by aboriginal ancestors in order to affirm an identity which is both epic and provincial. At the moment, however, the UDA has stepped aside from the conflict and is insisting that it is a socialist and non-sectarian organisation, composed of forward-looking people who are ‘tired of being classed as Neanderthal bigots’. They may draw their inspiration from a form of atavistic energy, but they are also modern in their outlook and they are opposed to the link with Britain. They have parted company with what is now termed ‘Official Unionism’.

Although the UDA has now distanced itself from Ian Paisley, he more than any other Unionist politician appears to belong to the dreamtime of Presbyterian aborigines – of giant preachers who strode the Antrim coast long before the birth of Christ. He is a complex and protean personality who imagines cyclones of blessings, compares himself to the diminutive Mahatma Gandhi, and probably nurses a secret admiration for Parnell, on whose Parliamentary tactics some of his own appear to be modelled.

Ian Paisley was born in Armagh in 1926. His father came of a Church of Ireland family who had lived in Co. Tyrone for many generations. In 1908, his father was ‘saved’ by an Evangelical preacher and became a Baptist. In a memorial sermon, the son describes how his father went down to a frozen River Strule one Easter Sunday morning with a pastor who first broke the ice and then put him under the water:

My father tells when he went under the waters of that river he identified himself with his Lord in death, in burial and in resurrection. When he came out that day he had lost many of his friends, he had lost many of the people that once associated themselves with him in the gospel. He realised that there was a reproach with the gospel. My father, as I told you, was uncompromising in his character. He did not care. The more he was opposed the more he preached and the more he was persecuted the more he excelled in evangelism. God blessed him and eventually he went to Armagh to business.

This is a characteristically Protestant piece of writing: there is the assertion of uncompromising principle, a strong self-justifying theme which runs throughout the sermon, an affirmation of the work ethic (that brutal verb ‘to business’, echoing the anti-Home Rule slogan, ‘Ulster means business’), and finally there is the idea of being born again. Imaginatively, this is a 17th-century world where religion and politics are synonymous: on Easter Sunday 1908, the Puritan revolutionary rises out of the deep, having rejected friends, family, leisure and the private life. The old life of compromise, scepticism and individual personality is set aside in the moment of commitment. And that commitment is made out in the open air, as compared with, say, T.S. Eliot’s Anglican and institutional commitment which is a ‘moment in a draughty church at smokefall’.

Paisley Senior later broke with the Baptists because of their ecumenism and set up his own Independent Fundamentalist Church. The son has inherited this characteristic of breaking with established institutions and he has a Cromwellian scorn of formalism, an instinctive libertarianism which conceals, or creates, a monumentally dictatorial personality. It may be that the alternative to compromised institutions is a series of pyramids dedicated to the egotistical sublime, to his relentless monomania.

One of the strongest features of Puritanism is its autobiographical tendency, its passionate self-regard. Paisley likes talking about himself and in one of his published sermons he describes his ‘apprenticeship in preaching in the open air’. During the Second World War he was a student at the Barry School of Evangelism in South Wales and his tutor in open-air preaching was an ex-boxer.

He had his prize gold belt always at the gospel meetings. He used to swing that great gold belt, which he won as the welterweight for the South of England, around his head and shout as only Ted Sherwood could shout. He had a voice like a trumpet. People had to heed and listen to him. When he got tired and husky, he used to say, ‘Go on Ian, you have a go.’ So he drew the crowd, and so I served my apprenticeship, preaching when his voice was gone, his throat husky and his powerful frame exhausted.

It’s like a scene from Ben Jonson: a fairground world where that ex-boxer swinging his gold belt is a Herculean showman with a voice so powerful it might bring walls crashing down. The charismatic mountebank – or sincere preacher – must draw and play the crowd, amuse it, hector it and put down hecklers. He is like a politician on a platform as well as being a flashy Autolycus-figure. That ex-boxer with the greenwood name stands as an archetype of inspiration, an entertainer and fighter, a displaced version of Cuchulain.

In 1949, Paisley began a mission in Belfast’s dockland and he also joined the anti-Roman Catholic National Union of Protestants. Somewhere about this time there is a moment outside the printed record where he appears to have been snubbed by a member of the Unionist establishment. That establishment regarded him as a working-class rabble-rouser and his outspoken, unrestrained bigotry threatened and parodied its defter sectarianism. The rebuff demanded vengeance and Paisley began the long march which was to bring him to the walls of the Unionist establishment, to the barrier around the demesne.

The Paisley of this period is partly modelled on the Rev. Henry Cooke, a reactionary and highly influential 19th-century preacher who did much to counter Presbyterian radicalism. This Paisley is an autochthonous bigot who once organised a mock-mass on the platform of the Ulster Hall. Patrick Marrinan, his biographer, describes the sinister shabbiness of this occasion, the nervous fascination of the audience laughing at a renegade Spanish priest reciting unfamiliar Latin words, the canny showmanship, the plastic buckets brimming with money. Paisley’s particular kind of Puritan egotism is voracious in its subjectivity, and for all its insistence on sincerity, is in practice highly theatrical. He is a compulsive role-player and is fond of dressing up in other people’s personalities. After the Almighty, after St Paul – for whom he confesses ‘a strange liking’ – his most influential model, or imaginative icon, is John Bunyan, whose life and work obsess him. Bunyan is ‘this dreamer and penman’, ‘the most prominent man of letters as far as English literature is concerned’, who had ‘the tinker’s power of reaching the heart’ – there is a hint of rural superstition and natural magic here. He admires Bunyan for his ‘strong doctrinal preaching’, his opposition to the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, the enormous crowds he drew, and for his prose style. Bunyan’s appeal is theological, social and aesthetic – he is culture and tradition. It’s here that we enter a time-warp and see that world of Ranters, Fifth Monarchy Men, Levellers and millenarian preachers which E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill describe in their work. For Thompson, Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the two ‘founding texts of the English working-class movement’ (the other is The Rights of Man). And so to admire Bunyan is by definition to be a dissenting radical, a nonconformist and a republican – Bunyan was a soldier in the Parliamentary Army.

Bunyan was also imprisoned for 12 years for preaching without a licence, and in 1966 Paisley was imprisoned for three months for demonstrating outside the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. In a statement he said, ‘It will take more than Captain O’Neill’s nasal twang to defy us’ – the class grudge is clear, even though class politics were an impossible concept then. O’Neill warned of the dangers of alienating ‘our British friends’ and with an unconscious dismissiveness referred to Northern Ireland as ‘this small corner of the British Commonwealth’. Angered by this diminution, Paisley retorted: ‘To Our Lord, puppet politicians are but grasshoppers with portfolios.’ Like any republican he refused, in one of his favourite phrases, to ‘bow the knee’ to the colonial authority and its deputies. And so, in a small corner of the British Commonwealth, Ulster’s Bunyan was imprisoned by a grasshopper with a portfolio.

While he was in prison Paisley wrote the most substantial of his four books. It is an exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans cast in the form of a Puritan journal. Each section is dated and the Exposition ends with this dramatic, deadpan postscript: ‘This section completed in the dawn of the 83rd day of imprisonment: Tuesday, 11th October, 1966.’ It is the dawn of righteousness, conviction and inspiration, and it looks forward to Paisley’s second prison term, three years later, when he sent this letter to his congregation:

Beloved in the Lord,

The day which we have prayed for and longed for has dawned. Captain O’Neill the tyrant is no longer the ruler of our country. We, who have suffered under his tyranny and wrath, can surely sing Psalm 124. The Lord has wrought for us a great deliverance, and to His great Name we ascribe the glory. Let us be careful to return our heartfelt thanks.

I heard the news here in my cell, No 20 (B2), as prisoner 636, at approximately 4.30 on Monday afternoon. Immediately I sang the doxology and fell upon my knees to give God thanks. We have had a long and bitter struggle. As a people we have suffered. As your minister I have been maligned and persecuted, and you have all shared the maligning and persecuting. We have been in the depths together. Every effort has been made to smash the testimony of the Church and the credibility of me, the minister of the church. THEY HAVE FAILED, FOR GOD WAS OUR HELPER. We are just a lot of nobodies, and the enemy thought he could trample us out, BUT GOD DELIVERED US.

Like a Luddite pamphlet, this message rises up from the very depths of popular culture, and that phrase ‘We are just a lot of nobodies’ concentrates much of the emotion which Paisleyism draws on and expresses. The plain, strenuous, autodidactic atmosphere that clings to Paisley’s published works – a combination of earnest pride and a deep lack of confidence – tells of a disadvantaged population which feeds its persecution complex by reading the Psalms and which dreams of emerging from the underground into the light of power and society.

It is impossible to nourish such an ambitious dream and to see yourself as a grateful inhabitant of a small corner of the British Commonwealth: Paisley’s rejection of that dependent status is formulated in a theological argument. Commenting on Romans I,i – ‘Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God’ – Paisley notes: ‘Paul was a separatist.’ This idea of separation is one of his major themes and in his commentary on Romans he is forming an idea of Ulster nationalism which entails separation from both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

He is also fascinated by the phrase ‘for a little season’ which occurs in Revelations VI, xi, and he cites a similar phrase from Hebrews: ‘By faith Moses, when he has come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.’ For Paisley, Ulster under O’Neill is like Egypt under Pharoah, a sinful bondage which is to be endured for a season. He draws this analogy in his commentary and it appears to be a Puritan favourite. In Richardson’s Pamela, for example, Pamela confides to her journal: ‘I think I was loth to leave the house. Can you believe it? – what could be the matter with me, I wonder? ... Surely I cannot be like the old murmuring Israelites, to long after the onions and garlic of Egypt, when they had suffered there such heavy bondage?’ In its restless search for liberty the Puritan spirit sometimes welcomes suffering, sometimes looks back over its shoulder to a warm and muddied slavery, to the old temporising life of compromise and subjection.

There is an epic moment in one of Paisley’s published sermons where he insists obsessively that ‘the sea speaks of separation’:

I stand at the edge of the sea. I look over its waves, and my loved ones are across in another continent. Between me and them stretch the waves of the briny depths. I know what it is to be separated from them. Nothing separates like the sea. What a barrier the sea makes. What a terrible barrier the sea makes. Separation.

The word obsesses him. In a cassette recording entitled Separation, which was released in 1980, he explains that Moses ‘chose the affliction of the people of God’ and rejected ‘the beggarly elements of Egypt’. Here, Egypt is the United Kingdom – Ulster under Direct Rule from Westminster – and Paisley is offering a Pauline separatist argument: ‘May God make us a separated people.’ By ‘us’ he means the Protestants – there is a tribal exclusiveness central to this definition: he sees himself as Moses leading his people out of bondage to the Promised Land. This parallel is employed elaborately by Joyce in Ulysses, where Bloom is Moses the precursor of Christ, the liberator; Parnell is both Moses and Christ; and Stephen is Christ the Hero. However, Joyce’s idea of the Irish nation is inclusive rather than exclusive – it is a definition beyond tribalism, beyond religious creed. And those Irish historians who congratulate themselves on their freedom from tribal simplicities might reflect on who exactly they mean by ‘we’ – who is the audience they speak for and address? A long time ago Yeats asked himself this question in ‘The Fisherman’ and answered it by praying for an ideal reader, a ‘man who is but a dream’.

Paisley’s political ambition and his motivating fire – a fire he has stolen from the Unionist establishment – are sometimes transparently evident in his scriptural exegesis. Commenting on the phrase, ‘for it is the power of God’ (Romans I, xvi), he remarks:

Gospel preaching is charged with the dynamic of heaven. Dynamite to be displayed in all its mighty potency must have the fuse and the fire. When the fuse of true prayer is set alight with the fire of the Holy Ghost and thus the gospel dynamite is exploded, what tremendous results occur. Then do the strongholds of Satan topple. Then do the bulwarks of idolatry collapse. Then do the towering walls of sin suddenly fall. Then is the enemy dislodged. Then is all opposition blasted and the power of truth is proved to be more than a conqueror. Oh for a day of real gospel preaching and gospel power! Lord let me witness such a day.

This prayer for power was offered in the prison cell in 1966. Three years later, in April 1969, there was a series of explosions which were blamed on the IRA, and which helped to bring about O’Neill’s resignation. Though no one had then accused them, the Ulster Volunteer Force denied responsibility for the explosions and it’s generally accepted that they, or freelance Protestant terrorists, were responsible. Puritan metaphor is a form of irony which has a habit of becoming literal: a dynamic millenarian rhetoric can inspire men to place actual dynamite under the status quo.

Paisley’s theological argument is that ‘righteousness without the law’ must be received by Faith and he explains that the seed of Abraham are not heirs of the law but heirs by the righteousness of faith without the law. According to the Anglican New Commentary on Holy Scripture, Paul argues that an ‘act of faith’ procured Abraham’s acquittal, and by ‘faith’ Paul means ‘the whole act, or attitude, of surrender to Christ, intellectual, moral, and emotional’.

This idea of an act of faith is at the foundation of Paisley’s thought, and from time to time it is given a calculated existential expression – as, for example, in his demonstration in the House of Commons after the assassination of the Rev. Robert Bradford and his subsequent call for a campaign of passive disobedience to force the British out. Of necessity, the leap of faith is informed or sustained by an idea of martyrdom. Paisley comments that Christ makes frequent references to his death as ‘the culminating act of his ministry on earth’, and this inspires his projection of himself as an exemplary figure, ready to stake all and do or die for his faith and his people (‘sell our lives dearly’, as he put it outside the House of Commons).

Although Paisley resembles De Valera in the theological cast of his mind, the religion he subscribes to is an apparently unstructured, intensely emotional experience. ‘Justification,’ he argues, ‘is heart work as opposed to head work.’ This assertion of emotion over intellect is both authoritarian and romantic, and Paisley finds its dogmatic justification in Romans X,x: ‘For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.’ This is what he terms ‘heart belief’. Essentially, what he is involved in is a version of that old 18th-century dichotomy between the heart and the head: the Anglican hegemony is for Reason, the Puritan Evangelical opposition is for Feeling. Reason is a form of social control, Feeling a type of subversion – as Henry Fielding implies in his criticisms of Whitefield.

Paisley’s argument in his Exposition is that when ‘the Spirit comes, the curse of the law is removed and its hideous tyranny broken and he [Paul] is freed from the law of sin and death’. Although this does appear to have connections with antinomianism, Paisley rejects ‘the pernicious doctrines of the antinomians’ in the introduction to Chapter Seven, where he discusses the concepts of ‘law’ and ‘grace’. Although he later states that a Christian ‘must also give due and proper respect to those above him in society’, it’s impossible not to perceive that ‘law’ and ‘grace’ are essentially irreconcilable. Inevitably, his Exposition is both political and theological, and his assertion that ‘Election’ is an act of God ‘governed only and solely by His good pleasure’ looks forward to his two election victories in 1970.

At this pitch of imaginative extremity, metaphor and irony take on a super-real brightness and the conventional line between fact and fiction melts in a manner that is characteristic of Puritan journalism. This is apparent in one of Paisley’s prison messages:

We are not the servants of men, nor the servants of the rulers of men. We are the servants of the Lord. This, of course, does not appear to the world. They think of us as devils, as trouble-makers, as servants of hell, and as disturbers of the peace. They do not recognise our imperial royalty as they did not recognise the imperial royalty of our Master. For if the princes of this world had known they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory. Some day, however, our imperial royalty will be manifested before heaven, earth and hell.

He was in prison for abusing the Governor of Northern Ireland, who was the representative of ‘imperial royalty’. However, the royal glow which it was his function to impart appears not to have warmed the unofficial side of Unionism, and Paisley’s statement is an assertion of his and his followers’ sense of their own worth, their own ‘imperial royalty’. It is a gesture of defiance and independence, and if the attitude which informs it is characteristically raw, edgy, brutal, dangerous, it is at least the beginning of an idea and so is far in advance of Official Unionism. That dismal political philosophy has never shown any talent for, or interest in, forming ideas.

Terence O’Neill dismissed Paisley’s chiliastic rhetoric and his political demonstrations as ‘mindless’, and the Establishment view of him is expressed in two later remarks of Brian Faulkner’s. When the British Government suspended Stormont; Faulkner accused it of reducing Northern Ireland to ‘a coconut colony’ (‘fuzzy wuzzy colony’ was the Lord Mayor of Belfast’s inspired alternative). Later, when the power-sharing Executive fell, Faulkner called Paisley ‘this demon doctor’. Drawing analogies – whether with Hungary or Algeria – is a deep-seated Irish habit and the parallel here must be familiar to anyone who has read the novels of V. S. Naipaul. It invites us to imagine a West Indian island, drums beating, the governor’s mansion, a messianic revolutionary leader, riots, carnival and independence. Paisleyism, like Reggae music, is an assertion of post-colonial identity, though Reggae is much more advanced, sophisticated and culturally eclectic.

In 1970, Paisley became a Stormont MP, then a Westminster MP. In the following year, Brian Faulkner introduced internment, and towards the end of 1971 Paisley emerged as a kind of republican statesman. With the SDLP, he opposed the introduction of internment ‘in principle’, though he had favoured it at first. At the end of November he suggested that if the Constitution of the Irish Republic were amended, then ‘good neighbourliness in the highest possible sense’ might prevail between the Republic and Northern Ireland:

I would like to see anything done that would be for the good of all the people of Northern Ireland and all the people of Ireland. I believe it could deal with the cancer and the cancer is not the 1920 Act and not the partition of the country but the cancer is the 1937 Constitution and the domination of the Catholic Church through it. I would like to see the whole thing thrown out.

Asked if he would favour a united Ireland if the Republic were to remove Protestant fears by amending its Constitution, he replied: ‘If you ask me whether I can see at some time some way, somewhere in the future a united Ireland, that is a question I cannot answer because I cannot now say what will happen in the future and, anyway, I cannot answer the question because I am too much of a realist and such a question is really not even worthy of consideration now.’ The Official Unionists were quick to exploit this apparent rejection of the old Anti-Home Rule slogan, ‘We won’t have it,’ and they accused Paisley of being prepared to sell out to Republicanism. He quickly drew back and claimed he’d been misquoted.

Three months later he emerged as a total integrationist in a pamphlet called The Ulster Problem, Spring 1972: A Discussion of the True Situation in Northern Ireland. This pamphlet contains ‘A Brief History of Ireland’ which is an interesting example of Unionist historiography. All mention of the 1798 rebellion is carefully avoided and we are moved briskly from the plantation of Ulster to the year 1800: ‘the Irish Parliament decided for legislative union or parliamentary union with Great Britain; and there was passed the Act of Union. The Irish Parliament was abolished, and from 1800 the members of Parliament from Ireland had their seats in the mother of parliaments – the British House of Commons at Westminster.’ Later in the pamphlet, Paisley insists on the necessity of ‘the complete union of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom’. He wants ‘full legislative union’. This appears straightforward – it was for a long time the policy of Enoch Powell and the Official Unionists – except that that favourite word ‘separated’ appears three times in the ‘Brief History of Ireland’. He describes O’Connell and Parnell as separatist leaders, and the wish to equal them in stature is not beyond his ambition.

In order to ‘separate’ he has had to appear to be leading his people back into Egypt, and it is now clear that Britain has absolutely no intention of granting Northern Ireland full, permanent, legislative union. Paisley therefore understands Austen Chamberlain’s remark that Northern Ireland is ‘an illogical and indefensible compromise’, and his policy can be interpreted as an ironic double bluff which invites both Britain and the Republic to lay their cards on the table. British policy may now be defined as ‘get out’ – the phrase hurled at Paisley, McQuade and Robinson by angry Westminster MPs – while the policy of the Irish Republic, rather like a painting by Jack Yeats, has moments of definition in a mystic haze.

If total integration is a dead duck (and everybody recognises that it is), and if a united Ireland is an impossibility, then the only alternative is for Northern Ireland to secede and go independent – to ‘separate’. Ultimately – and tragically – there never is a choice between this, that, and a something else which is neither this nor that. However, the idea of Ulster independence does express a conflict which is other than the Unionist/Republican conflict. Southerners appear to regard Northerners as incomprehensible savages, while Northerners look south and see, in the words of Henry Joy McCracken, ‘a set of gasconaders’. At a deep level there is a shared perception, a common bond, between the minority and majority populations in the North, and this bond is altogether other than the sentimental concept of ‘ould dacency’ purveyed by opportunist writers like Benedict Kiely.

It emerges, for example, in a speech which Paisley made in 1973, the year the House of Commons approved a White Paper for a Northern Ireland Assembly. During the Commons debate, Paisley said this:

In many senses we have been caught up in a struggle that goes far beyond the basic differences between two sections of the community. There are other elements in the situation that do not want a settlement of any kind, that are purely and utterly destructive, that want to see the destruction of Northern Ireland not merely as an entity in the UK, but as part of the Western democratic system. This House must face up to the fact that these forces in Northern Ireland care not about any Government White Paper or the democratic vote. They believe that violence in the end shall pay. It is sad but in many degrees violence has paid off in Ulster. Throughout this debate there has been the dangerous suggestion that if the elections throw up a group in Northern Ireland which this House does not like, then, with the stroke of a pen, they can say on March 31st next year: ‘fare thee well.’ When we say this makes us feel like second-class citizens, we are telling the truth. I would not like to see Northern Ireland ever going outside the Union, but there is a section there who are feeling restless with the attitudes of the members of this House and the Government.

Perhaps this was the first time that a Unionist stated in public that he felt like a ‘second-class citizen’. It marks a significant movement of the spirit and helps to define the difference between official and unofficial Unionism. The majority of the constituents of Fermanagh and South Tyrone will hardly have needed to recall the phrase when the House of Commons lately ignored their wishes. Here we arrive at a principle which unites Paisleyism with Republicanism – and at the collision between that principle and the eyes-averted Burkean shuffle which characterises British policy towards Ireland. The principle of one man, one vote has even prompted one Burkean commentator to suggest that Fermanagh-South Tyrone should become United Nations territory. The complication in Paisley’s attitude to this principle lies in his perception of himself as British. It is an intermittent and fluctuating perception (for the Sunday Times, he is a ‘defiler of the British way of life’), but it was expressed forcibly during a meeting Paisley had with Bernadette Devlin in 1968. She suggested that the Unionist state had been unjust and unfair. Paisley conceded that there might have been injustices, but insisted: ‘I would rather be British than fair.’ In Ulster, the condition of being British is that you believe in one man, one vote but are selective about its implementation.

Because he possesses a theological temperament, Paisley is as opposed to liberalism as any Marxist. In one sermon, for example, he attacks the ‘sinking sands of an easy believism’ – he means ecumenism, liberal theology and politics. In another, he says: ‘Make sure of this, there will be no neutrals in this service. There will not be a man or a woman go down the stairs today, out unto the streets of Ballymena, who will not have made a vital and a terrible decision.’ This is the Baptist doctrine of total immersion or complete commitment, and anyone familiar with the ideological temperament will recognise it here in an earlier, theological form. It’s a temperament dipped in icy, not lukewarm water, an urgent single-minded attitude which says that the ‘only minute you can be sure of is this minute’ and which states that it’s ‘now or never’.

This tremendous leap of faith is directed both at personal political power and at an idea of God, and Paisley’s God resembles a cross between Judge Jeffreys and Albert Pierrepoint. This ‘God of inflexible justice’ is described in a sermon called ‘After This Judgment’ in which Paisley gives a relished description of a court ‘in the old days’ where the chaplain comes and gives the judge ‘the black cap’. He then says: ‘Some day Jesus will put on the black cap.’ This idea of God as a hanging judge is developed in his study of George Whitefield: somewhere deep in Paisley’s personality there lies a fascination with judicial murder which involves a contradictory identification with both the victim and his executioner.

In a published sermon, ‘Richard Cameron: The Lion of the Covenant’, there is a savoured quotation from the sentence of hanging and disembowelling which the ‘Council of Blood’ passed on one of the Covenanters. Here Paisley appears as a Scottish Nationalist laying the ‘tribute wreath’ of his sermon on the memorial to a Protestant martyr (his mother was ‘born into a Scots Covenanting home’ and he makes much of his Scottish inheritance). This is apparent in two cassette sermons on the Covenanters which are awash with cries of ‘blood’ and whose delivery at times resembles the intonation necesary to a reading of the closing lines of ‘Easter 1916’. The ‘Covenanting martyrs’, these almost forgotten historical figures, are invested with a vocal halo and so are changed into transcendent heroes. This is a Protestantism which is pushing deep into the territory of mystery and mythology: a celebration of chthonic forces and a rejection of secular and utilitarian values. Paisley singles out one young Covenanter, Hugh McKail, who was ‘only 27 years old’ when he was led to the scaffold. His description of McKail’s execution is ironically similar to Padraig Pearse’s account of Robert Emmett’s execution, where the body of the ‘comely’ young man is desecrated on the scaffold. Paisley thanks God that there is ‘in my heart a wonderful affinity with Richard Cameron’. The Covenanters, he states, were ‘bold, courageous, strong men ... these were not the putty paper men of the 20th century – these were the rugged men of the Reformation.’ Quoting a ‘great master of English literature’ – someone he calls ‘Jupiter Carlyle’ – he terms them ‘real heroes’, and he refers to this passage from Heroes and Hero-Worship: ‘many men in the van do always, like Russian soldiers, march into the ditch at Schweidnitz, and fill it up with their dead bodies, that the rear may pass-over them dry shod, and gain the honour ... How many earnest rugged Cromwells, Knoxes, poor Peasant Covenanters, wrestling, battling for very life, in rough miry places, have to struggle, and suffer, and fall, greatly censured, bemired, – before a beautiful Revolution of Eighty-eight can step over them in official pumps and silk-stockings, with universal three-times-three!’ It is a burning evocation of that anonymous historical experience from which Paisley draws much of his inspiration.

When heaven was opened, Paisley says, the Covenanters hoped to see Christ ‘on his white horse coming forth to put every enemy underneath his feet’. Here Christ and William of Orange, the Second Coming and the Glorious Revolution, melt into each other. The Day of Judgment is a gable-end in Sandy Row and the white horse becomes the pale horse of Revelations. Paisley is an amateur and obsessive numerologist and he has a particular fascination with the apocalyptic vision of Revelations. In another Covenanting sermon, he explains the symbolism of the fifth seal in terms which echo his discussion of grace and law in the Exposition. Five is the ‘number of grace’ and this is the ‘mighty sovereign free grace of God’ which enabled the Covenanters to ‘stand true and uncompromisingly’. In this sermon metaphor and substance become confused: blood is both symbol and reality. The preacher shouts out: ‘all the attributes of God flow in the bloodstream of Calvary ... we’re under the blood-stained banner of the Cross ... must sail through bloody seas ... blood ... blood ... blood.’ The sermon has its Churchillian moments – ‘there’s a storm coming that will try all our foundations’ – and it also has moments of bloody and paranoid dementia. At times, it sounds a note of bitter failure, at others it is fired with a notion of glorious martyrdom. It looks beyond this world to the Resurrection, yet it is also directed towards this world in its imagination of a radically new, radically changed society. It is part Protestant triumphalism careering off into heaven, part an attempt to heal the Puritan split in consciousness by summoning a millenarian vision of a new heaven and a new earth. This sermon offers an essentially Lawrentian ethic – blood consciousness and the healing rainbow at the end.

This apocalyptic vision is given an antiquarian treatment in Paisley’s book, The ‘Fifty-Nine’ Revival, which is an account of the revolutionary ‘flood time of revival’ which swept parts of Ulster in 1859. F. S. L. Lyons discusses this movement briefly in Culture and Anarchy in Ireland, though he sees it – wrongly, I think – as an almost exclusively emotional and psychological phenomenon. Future historians will have a mass of pamphlets, tracts, sermons and journalism to draw on: Lyons has failed to begin this excavation and this may explain why his discussion of Northern culture is so unsatisfactory. In his conclusion, he states that between the fall of Parnell and the death of Yeats there was an anarchy ‘in the mind and in the heart, an anarchy which forbade not just unity of territories, but also “unity of being”, an anarchy that sprang from the collision within a small and intimate island of seemingly irreconcilable cultures, unable to live together or to live apart, caught inextricably in the web of their tragic history’. Despite the counterbalancing quotation from Yeats with which he caps this, Lyons’s Arnoldian terminology is unhelpful. It can be argued – indeed it was argued long ago by George Birmingham – that Irish culture is really unified at its extremes. In his historical study, The Massacre of St Bartholomew, Paisley explores the doctrine of martyrdom. He believes that ‘true faith is a martyred faith’ and argues that the blood of the martyrs is the ‘seed’ of the Church. This is close to the phrase ‘elect seed’ which he employs in his Exposition and it resembles Pearse’s notion of martyrdom.

Does this mean, then, that it is Paisley’s ambition to take over the GPO in Belfast and give his life for Ulster? Will there be a generation of Democratic Unionist hunger-strikers? Will there be a civil war of the kind Paisley describes in his history of the Huguenots? Will a shrunken, independent Northern Ireland barricade itself against an enlarged Republic? And will an ambitious group of Ulster Nationalists demand the return of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal, as well as the counties lost from the six? Or will there be negotiation, argument, compromise, a new constitution, a parliament in Armagh and the beginnings of a way of writing history that is neither Orange nor Green, but is instead as white as the middle band of the Irish tricolour? History, by its very nature, has no answers.

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