Listening to a demagogue

What my encounter with the late Ian Paisley taught me about political and religious extremism.

I didn’t know what one was supposed to do while listening to a demagogue but I knew I hadn’t expected to be straining to hear him. Ian Paisley’s image is of course forever set as the man booming: “NEVER, NEVER, NEVER” not as the frail old man I saw at the Oxford Union in 2011.

Paisley had, however, been on quite a journey. When he first spoke at the Union in 1969, he delivered an explosive fire and brimstone sermon which was booed and heckled by the audience.

More than three decades later, he seemed not only to lack the physical strength for a repeat performance but also the inclination. In the interim, he had acquired a degree of political respectability. Having done his best to sabotage attempts at sharing power with Republicans, he embraced them at the 11th hour. This allowed him to become First Minister of Northern Ireland with – rather extraordinarily – former IRA commander Martin McGuiness serving as his deputy.

This political mellowing was reflected in a softer public persona. When I heard Paisley I didn’t hear him preaching hellfire but instead delivering a rather bland and often inaudible lecture on the merits of the Kings James Bible. He responded jovially to audience questions which while always polite – itself a change – were often very pointed. Perhaps most surprisingly he talked warmly of the fact that Martin McGuiness had attended a service at a protestant church. Paisley seemed to take this not as a political gesture that an indication that McGuiness might be on the road to being saved. The notion of Paisley welcoming the prospect of McGuiness one day joining him in heaven is certainly a strange one.

What this does show is the extent to which the religious appeared to be more important to Paisley than political. Strangely for a man who was in parliament for 40 years, he seemed to believe he was addressing us not as a politician but as an evangelist. Much as with his view of McGuiness, this portrayed a certain unworldliness; he was a messenger who would repel rather attract young liberal mainlanders to Christianity.

And for all the changes to his politics, religion clearly remained an area in which he had not evolved. When asked if he might reciprocate McGuiness’ gesture and attend a Catholic service, he was adamant that that was not possible as it would be collaborating with an evil force. Challenged by one audience member to repeat his claim that the Pope was the antichrist, he did so albeit rather indirectly – he is still a politician after all. He also made it clear not only were Catholics and non-Christians beyond the pale but so were Protestants who did not share the fundamentalist positions of his Free Presbyterian Church. And he also stood by his opposition to homosexuality.

I note that Paisley remained staunch in his intolerant religious beliefs while coming to accept nationalist politicians playing a part in government because I feel it has contemporary relevance. Many people including David Cameron have suggested that tackling Islamism requires tackling not just those who advocate jihad but also ‘non-violent extremists’ who advocate intolerant positions but not violence. I would suggest that Paisley indicates this is not necessarily the case. He was moved from being a fanatical opponent of the peace process(es) to one of its cornerstones while still being a bigoted fundamentalist. Political extremism is a political problem which needs a political solution and seeking a spiritual one may well be an ineffective distraction.

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