Unionism, yet separation from the world; ‘No surrender!’, yet full surrender to Christ — these are part of the extraordinary legacy of the most politically influential UK Christian leader of our time.
Coming on 12 September, just six days before Scotland voted on the future of the union between Scotland and the rest of the UK, the death of the most famous Unionist of all carried special significance.
In death as life, Rev. Ian Richard Kyle Paisley, Baron Bannside, divided opinion. His former political arch-rival, and later second-in-command in Northern Ireland’s power sharing executive, fought back tears as he spoke about Ian Paisley’s death.
Others called for ‘no tears’ to be shed for the ‘strident’ preacher, whose political activism spanning five decades, was seen as adding to, rather than solving, Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’.
Born in Armagh in 1926, Ian Paisley later studied at the Barry School of Evangelism (today incorporated in WEST), and, then for a year, at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Hall in Belfast.
The 20-year-old Mr Paisley took his first pastorate in 1946, being ordained as the minister of Ravenhill Evangelical Mission Church, Belfast. In 1951, he founded the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster and also became a prime mover in the Unionist political movement of the 1950s.
As the UK’s Protestant denominations became increasingly receptive towards Catholicism, he spearheaded campaigns against unbiblical ecumenism and theological liberalism. He was too a stalwart advocate of the King James Version of the Bible.
But it was in the 1960s that Ian Paisley’s political life hit the headlines. Soon he was leading the charge against the Catholic civil rights movement. As the Troubles grew, he became MP for North Antrim in 1970.
He founded the Democratic Union Party (DUP) in 1971 and, although an outspoken critic of Europe, became an MEP in 1979.
He famously declared ‘No surrender!’ in 1985 to an Anglo-Irish Agreement, which would have seen him sit down with ‘that devil’ Gerry Adams and the terrorist IRA sympathisers. ‘No, no, no’, he is recorded as declaring with that stentorian voice.
The Northern Ireland Assembly reconvened in May 2007, after a five-year suspension. Dr Paisley became NI’s new First Minister, with former political opponent Mr McGuinness of Sinn Fein as deputy.
The two were often seen laughing together, earning them the title ‘Chuckle Brothers’, much to the consternation of both strong Unionist and die-hard separatist members of their constituency.
In January 2008, Paisley stepped down as moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church and, in May that year, resigned as First Minister and leader of the DUP, finally retiring as a Westminster MP in 2010. Following ill-health, he died in September this year.
Back in 1980, few would have expected that senior DUP figures would be excluded from his private, small funeral; or that one of the most mournful would be Mr McGuinness.
Those who heard Rev. Ian Paisley preach or speak can testify to the force of his words and his commanding presence.
Yet there was also the private man, whose love for Jesus won over hearts and minds. Quoted in the Irish press was one MP who recalled hearing ‘gentle’ prayers from Dr Paisley, followed moments later by ‘strident, red-faced shouting in parliament’.
Evangelical Times met Bernard McNally [name changed], a nominal Catholic. On 8 January 1989, he was in Belfast waiting for his 21-year-old son to return on British Midland Flight 92. The plane did not arrive; it had crashed off the M1, at Kegworth.
Of the 126 people aboard, 47 died and 74 were seriously injured. Relatives flooded to Belfast airport, waiting for news. Mr McNally said, ‘I was told my son had swapped his seat with a young woman. There was no news of him. I was overwhelmed.
‘Suddenly I felt a firm hand on my shoulder. I looked up. Of course I recognised him. The enemy! He and his wife had come down to the airport to pray with people. He said, “Son, can I pray for you?” I said, “I’m a Catholic”.
‘He said, “That doesn’t matter. I’m here to pray with anyone who needs comfort at this time”. Well, as soon as I heard that, I started to cry; I couldn’t help it.
‘And for the next hour, this gentle man came alongside me, spoke to me, prayed with me, read from the Bible and told me he would continue to pray that my son would make it’.
Back in England, his son had been so badly wounded that he was left with a few of the lowest priority victims. A doctor saw his body moving in pain, so in pity decided to give the victim painkillers. He performed some basic triage and left for the night.
Hours later, a medic came to tag the dead bodies. He touched one, which groaned. The young man was still alive; and is alive and well today! Thirty years on, the father has tears in his eyes as he remembers.
Mr McNally was not alone that night in his encounter with the preacher-turned-politician; nor was it the only occasion when Dr Paisley came alongside ordinary people in great need and showed them great kindness.
However, readers should reflect on another aspect of an extraordinary career too colourful and influential to do justice to in this brief article. Generally, it provides no mandate to Christian ministers to engage in politics, since those called to this work are to give themselves to the ‘ministry of the Word and prayer’ (Acts 6:4).
Christian ministers make poor politicians (Anglican bishops, take note!). The occasional remarkable exception like Rev. Ian Paisley only proves the rule.