The preacher who found a natural extension for his pulpit in politics

Straight talk was heard on RTÉ’s The Marian Finucane Show last Sunday about Ian Paisley. Bigotry, the lives of young loyalist men ruined by deeds his rhetoric inspired, and that is not to speak of their victims.

The ESRI economist Alan Barrett struck home as I sat two chairs away on the panel. Taking an economist’s “balance sheet approach” he said, to Paisley’s legacy, “the totality of his life was so negative, it really has to be said and it has to be said very bluntly”. So be it.

Certainly Paisley was scarifyingly sectarian. Some of it may have been bluster but, repeated ad nauseam over 50 years, much was heartfelt. In the end, however, he had a great political conversion and gave true leadership. I hope for him, this is the final judgment.

It is striking that, although he brought his party with him almost intact, he failed almost entirely to bring his Church along. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Free Presbyterian Church were never coterminous. Both were bound up in him, but had fundamentally different foundations: one in this world, the other in the next.

The origins of Free Presbyterianism can be traced to 1951. The DUP was another 20 years in the making. A breakaway from the Presbyterian mainstream – part opportunism, part local spat in Crossgar, Co. Down – it was an anti-intellectual, anti-modernist reaction against a budding ecumenism within Presbyterianism. Paisley stood for an uncompromised 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, still the standard for Calvinist belief (including its condemnation of the Pope as anti-Christ).

Ian Paisley’s world view as it developed from the 1950s is unintelligible only if examined through a relatively modern prism. If you leave demagogy out, you can retrace remnants of his views in the debates of the Second Vatican Council on religious liberty, and what the proper role of the state should be.


Conservatives there strongly opposed the Council document Dignitatis Humanae as not adequately enunciating the duty of the civil state to heed the moral authority of the Church.

A young Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, influenced by experience of nazism and communism and instinctively wary of the state as a moral project, secured language on the need to limit a state’s power, by consideration of the “objective moral order”.

This, in a parallel but separate sense, is the paradigm within which modern Church-State relations played out in the Republic of Ireland for 50 years. In 1960 a candidate for President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, formulated his political response when he said in Houston, Texas “For side by side with Bowie and Crockett died McCafferty and Bailey and Carey, but no one knows whether they were Catholic or not. For there was no religious test at the Alamo.”

In Church terms, Pope Francis recently asked the rhetorical question “who am I to judge” when questioned about gay men and women. The full text of that question and answer deserve study beyond that shorthand quote, but what may ultimately be more important is not the specific issue, but the general tenor of the answer.

If developed, and it has not been yet, it would mark a departure from an orthodoxy previously shared across sectarian lines about where ultimately the judgment seat should be situated in society. It would certainly progress a centuries-old nexus between religion and power.

Paisley was peculiar only to the degree, and at times abominable purpose, that he applied his doctrine. His was essentially a Frankenstein-like enunciation sprung from once widely-shared views about the subservience of secular to religious authority – the objective moral order – subsequently horribly mimicked by totalitarian ideologies.

For Paisley the preacher, his political party was a natural extension of his pulpit. The underlying fault line between the two was, however, the chasm he fell into.

His political shafting, if contemporaneous with his deposition from his pulpit, was a parallel but separate process. Having led his party into the promised land, like all politicians he outlived his utility. The last but one Churchman since Cardinal Wolsey to be an English monarch’s first minister, like Wolsey at the end, he too rued “if I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs”.


Much commentary this week is concentrated on the astonishing metamorphism of the politician into government with Sinn Féin. The greater but failed transformation attempted was as leader of his Church. After a lifetime preaching an end-time religion, suddenly (more Dr Who than Dr Paisley) he switched into normal time as a politician. For Free Presbyterians this was an abyss, not a promised land.

In a sense, this is little more than history now. His spleen against the Catholic Church is overtaken, first by self-inflicted damage, and by secularism that considers Paisley’s worldview and putative anti-Christ with mutual indifference.

The central, recurring question of who is to judge, is reshaped. It is no longer amenable to the once pervasive claims of either Presbyterianism, in any form, or Catholicism to exercise political direction.

The modern public square is a tundra for religion. What I find personally fascinating is that, although so-called morality has changed, authority has changed much less. The tendency of all power is ultimately towards ascendancy. Although hard-wired now for apparently different purposes, in its inherent intolerance of criticism, it faintly echoes dead bogey men.

Gerard Howlin is a public affairs consultant and former senior political advisor.