Free Ps and the Rise of Sinn Fein

As the days tick down to the Stormont poll on 5 May, guest writer Radical Unionist commentator Dr John Coulter analyses for the Pensive Quill how the Free Presbyterians’ 60th anniversary this year could boost Sinn Fein’s chances of being the largest Assembly party.

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness could succeed the DUP’s Peter Robinson as First Minister after the 5 May poll – and he would have the Protestant fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church to thank!

The hardline denomination celebrated its 60th birthday on St Patrick’s Day as it was founded on 17 March, 1951 by former DUP boss and ex-First Minister Ian Paisley senior, now Lord Bannside, although the commemorations to mark that 60th birthday will continue throughout 2011.

The staunchly fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church was a breakaway from the mainstream, more liberal leaning Irish Presbyterian Church, which in the 1950s was the North’s largest Protestant denomination.

Although the Free Presbyterian Church, commonly called the Free Ps, has only about 16,000 worshippers on a Sunday out of a Northern Protestant population of around one million, for many years it was regarded as ‘the DUP at prayer’.

A decade ago, when the Free Ps celebrated their half-century in 2001, the commemorations became the launching pad for the DUP to overtake the rival Ulster Unionists as the largest Unionist party in the 2003 Assembly poll.

As the secular society becomes more open the deeper we progress into the third millennium, it would be easy to dismiss the Free P Church as a bunch of irrelevant Tub Thumpers. That would be both a huge inaccuracy politically and religiously.

In 1970, by the time Paisley senior became both a Stormont MP and Westminster MP, his Free P Church had existed for almost two decades. Free Presbyterianism gave a voice to two politically muted voices in liberal Unionist-controlled Ulster – evangelical Protestants and working class loyalists.

The Free P Church’s real power was its tremendous ability to mobilise Unionist voters of whatever denomination or class on polling days. This was the secret behind Paisley senior’s 230,251 first preference, poll-topping performance in the 1984 European election; the overtaking of the UUP in 2003 at Stormont, and again two years later in the Westminster General Election.

During the Paisley era, to progress up the ranks of the DUP, many figures also needed to be ‘born again’ Christian fundamentalists in Free Presbyterianism. As well as Paisley senior, another high profile DUP cleric is the Gospel-singing South Antrim MP, Rev William McCrea.

While Sinn Fein spin doctor Danny Morrison masterminded the republican movement’s concept of the ballot paper in one hand and the Armalite in the other, Paisley’s Free P’s equally developed the rival Unionist concept of the Bible in one hand and the ballot paper in the other.

Small in quantity the Free P Church may be, even in relation to other fundamentalist Protestant denominations, but its political quality was its ability to send its tentacles of influence right through every Protestant denomination and social class.

Although the Free Presbyterian Church was central to mobilising the DUP core vote, rifts began to emerge after Paisley senior signed the St Andrews Agreement in 2006.

The unease turned into open rebellion the following year after Paisley senior entered a power-sharing Stormont Executive with Sinn Fein, leading to jibes that he and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness were ‘the Chuckle Brothers’.

Coming myself from a mainstream Irish Presbyterian background where my dad was an Ulster Unionist politician and Presbyterian minister, I was naturally regarded with tremendous suspicion as a journalism by Free Presbyterianism.

But in the weeks and months after the signing of the St Andrews Agreement and the DUP’s 2007 Stormont election victory, I was amazed by the significant number of Free Presbyterians who confidentially opened their hearts to me at the unease with which they viewed the developing peace process.

While I still got ‘the odd earful’ from the hardened Paisley loyalist, even senior and influential Free P’s privately voiced their concerns about ‘The Doc’ being Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church and sitting in a power-sharing Executive with Sinn Fein.

Several months later, Paisley senior was initially forced to quit as Moderator – or leader – of the Free Presbyterian Church; a post he had held for more than 50 years. Weeks later came the news he was stepping aside as both First Minister and DUP leader, the latter post he had held since the DUP was launched in 1971.

Many of those who followed MEP Jim Allister out of the DUP to form the hardline, anti-power sharing Traditional Unionist Voice party were Free Presbyterians.

Under the St Andrews Agreement, the party with the largest number of MLAs has the right to select the coveted First Minister’s post.

Sinn Fein could follow its best ever Dail showing sunder Gerry Adams since the formation of the Republic by becoming the largest Assembly party if the Free Presbyterian Church does not rally Unionist voters behind the Robinson-led DUP.

Protestant voter apathy – especially among Church-going Christians – has been increasing in recent elections. Some political sources estimate around 150,000 Christians – many of whom would be sympathetic to the DUP – did not vote in last year’s Westminster General Election.

The Free Ps’ 60th commemorations also coincide with celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, the translation most favoured by many Protestant fundamentalist churches.

If Free Presbyterians do not play their leading role in mobilising Protestant voters behind the DUP, but instead either plump for the TUV or ignore the ballot box, this could give Sinn Fein a narrow advantage in the battle to become the top Assembly party.

Already there has been open criticism from some in the Free Presbyterian Church of First Minister Robinson suggesting he would be prepared to attend a Roman Catholic funeral – an act severely frowned upon during the Paisleyite era in the DUP.

Paisley senior still retains a leading role in the Free Ps, particularly through its monthly journal, The Revivalist, in which he and his wife – fellow peer Baroness Eileen Paisley - have regular columns.

Free Presbyterians have also been highly active in other fringe fundamentalist groups such as the Evangelical Protestant Society, the Caleb Foundation, and the Independent Orange Order.

It is expected the Free Church will be one of the leading protest groups during any planned visit of the Pope to the North next year.

Republicans and nationalists should not dismiss the tensions within the Free Presbyterian Church as yet another internal Protestant religious squabble.
These same republicans would do well to see Free Presbyterianism as a vital pulse within political Unionism. Nationalists ignore developments in the Free P’s at their peril.

Rev Ian Paisley senior – founded the church in 1951. Now in his mid 80s, he still has a strong behind the scenes influence.

Rev Kyle Paisley – Paisley senior’s son and the leading cleric to succeed his dad as minister of the most famous Free P church, the Martyrs Memorial in Belfast. Has spent much of his ministry in Britain. Brother of Ian Junior, who succeeded Paisley senior as North Antrim MP.

Rev Ivan Foster – Ran one of the church’s Christian schools. Former leading light in the Fermanagh Third Force loyalist vigilante group. Thought to be one of the main opponents of Paisley senior entering the Executive with Sinn Fein.

Rev Willie McCrea – Has been one of Paisley senior’s right hand men for many years. Leading Gospel singer who has made numerous albums. Currently MP for South Antrim.

Rev Jim Beggs – Paisley senior’s brother in law. Former minister of Ballymena Free P Church and was Paisley’s election agent in North Antrim for many years.
Rev Ron Johnstone – former missionary and current successor to Paisley senior as Moderator of Free P Church. Thought to favour the Free P Church distancing itself from Unionist politics.

Rev David McIlveen – minister of Sandown Free P Church in east Belfast and the main media spokesman for the denomination.

Rev John Douglas – senior minister at Lisburn Free P Church and one of the denominations top theologians.

Rev William Beattie – long time political colleague of Paisley senior who was based in South Antrim and Lagan Valley. In 1970, he won Stormont seat for Protestant Unionist Party, the forerunner of the DUP.

George Dawson – died from cancer a few months after retaining his Assembly seat, but as Grand Master of Independent Orange Order, founding Chairman of Caleb and East Antrim MLA, was highly instrumental in rallying other evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants behind the DUP.


  1. John,

    a good piece which we are glad to have. It will be interesting to see how it pans out. At the launch of Ed Moloney's book on Paisley in London a few years back Paul Bew stressed the need to understand the evangelical/fundamentalist strain that was so crucial to shaping that strand of unionist opinion.

  2. This all sounds classic catch 22.
    Nationalists or republicans would have little sway in relation to the Free P,s.
    However, in spite of this we are now being told that we could suffer as a result of their raw sectarianism.
    What could they unleash, that has not been unleashed before?
    Their problems are the result of die hard fundamentalist attitudes and lack of tolerance.
    The precarious structures on which the GFA was build now look increasingly doubtful.
    Will the Free Ps give minister Mc Guinness a crack at the coveted title, I really don't think so.

  3. John,
    I am not trying to be funny but you would imagine the Free Ps would be in their element going to a Roman Catholic funeral.
    If the Free Ps do bring down Robinson, a person could only conclude that the crux which drives them has more to do with anti-Catholic hatred and less to do with their sense of Britishness.

  4. I have a long memory of William Beattie,from his time campaining to stop Poleglass being built,but more personally when psf took seats in Lisburn council,in those days the meetings took place in Hillsborough and Beattie made sure that we were given a warm reception, things were so bad we used to wear bullet proof vests,now he has been of the radar for a few years,but if he is as John says one of the main movers and shakers of the dup and I wouldnt doubt John on that, then I,m afraid that whith people like Beattie and Mc Crea the notion that this place is shrugging of its secterian past is a myth, these leporads dont change their spots.and I,m afraid psf is now entangled in a dance to death,
    Eye to eye and head to head
    (keep the measure nag)
    this shall end when one is dead
    Rikki-tikki- tavvi.Jungle book,and psf is going to be the loser here.

  5. Marty
    SF already the loser. Only the demented and blind can equate a majority vote in a UK assembly as some kind of victory. How ironic they may be the largest grouping and committed to Stormont. As dustin the turkey said...where did it all go wrong. Pitty the dead. What a pantomime.

  6. A priest and a nun are on a camel in the Sahara desert,the camel drops dead leaving them doomed:realising their fate the priest asks the nun to expose her boobs,she agrees providing he takes out his todger,they begin to fondle each other and the priest gets excited,"you know if I place this in the right place I can create life"said the priest "right" said the nun "stick it up the camel and lets get the f##k out of here"..A guy goes to a supermarket and notices an attractive womam waving at him,she says "hello" he,s taken aback because he cant place where he knows her from,so he says "do you know me?"to which she replies "I think your the father of one of my kids" now his mind travels back to the only time he was ever unfaithfull to his wife and says "are you the stripper from the bachelor party that I made love to on the pool table with all my mates watching while your whipped my butt with wet celery?" she looks into his eyes and says calmly"no I,m your sons teacher"..

  7. Marty,

    the Free Ps are just gonna love you for lewd jokes! Can't annoy the Puritans you know. Burn in hell if you do.

  8. Who cares Anthony you and I are beyond redemption and doomed to hell untill it freezes over,we have the cosulation that we will beyond the clutches of god,

  9. Fionnuala
    "What could they unleash, that has not been unleashed before? Their problems are the result of diehard fundamentalist attitudes and lack of tolerance".

    Couldn't agree more. However, a strong indication of Dr. Coulter’s analysis was the McGeough case. Why do I connect this article with McGeough? In his article, Dr. Coulter states: Republicans and nationalists should not dismiss the tensions within the Free Presbyterian Church as yet another internal Protestant religious squabble. These same republicans would do well to see Free Presbyterianism as a vital pulse within political Unionism. Nationalists ignore developments in the Free P’s at their peril.”

    One of the driving forces behind the McGeough arrest/guilty verdict was the DUP. Arlene Foster, Roger Burton and Maurice Morrow from the DUP. Cheerleaders for the former “B Special” UDR man Sammy Brush. In hindsight, Sinn Fein may have been on the same page as Dr. Coulter, prior to this article, and that possibly could have been one of the motivating factors in them doing “nothing” to help Gerry McGeough? Don’t stir the pot and piss-off the DUP and their supporters? However, in no way does that excuse Sinn Fein for their lack of integrity with regard to the McGeough case and other things republican. Just a thought.

  10. Spot on Helen I think your post is as near the knuckle as its possible to get,add Dodds, Poots,McCauslandand quite a few others who hold assembly positions,the fundamentalist wing of the dup seem to be as determined to have a protestant parliament for a protestant people,only difference these days is they are now using stealth tatics rather than the bull and thunder of the old dup,we have had another example of their bigotory and the useleness of psf and Adams in particular in his role of mp for west Belfast,one of the most serious economically disadvantaged areas in europe,the Anytout news revealed that over ten years or so the dept responsible for inward investment which Arlene Foster oversees invested close to £800 mill in east Belfast while the west recieved less than £20 mill.I agree these people cant be ignored they havent changed their political goal unlike psf.rather they have changed tatics, but still the bigots they have always been.

  11. Marty

    ‘Who cares Anthony you and I are beyond redemption and doomed to hell until it freezes over, we have the consolation that we will beyond the clutches of god.’

    I don’t much fancy that Christian god at all. A vengeful, vindictive, jealous and wrathful old despot. There have been more people killed in its name than in Hitler’s. Why would you and I honour it with our company for eternity?

    Stick with the Flying Spaghetti Monster Marty; as I said to John McGirr not one has died in its name.

    My da always used to mimic William Beattie in the early 70s. He said Beattie had a vocabulary of five words ‘bring back the B Specials.’