The latest BBC series investigating the Troubles has made some very contentious allegations about the late Rev Ian Paisley and his alleged ‘relationship’ to loyalist extremists.
The incredible journey in finding his own Biblical-style ‘Road to Damascas’ political conversion from Protestant fundamentalism’s Hell fire Dr No, to his downfall as the Chuckle Brothers’ Dr Go was already effectively documented in veteran journalist Ed Moloney’s masterpiece, Paisley From Demagogue to Democrat?
I have spent much of my own 60 years living and working in Paisley senior’s North Antrim stomping ground.
He rose to power in the Sixties by giving a voice and creating an unholy alliance between two previously muted factions within the ‘Fur Coat Brigade’ dominated Unionist Party – Christian fundamentalists and the loyalist working class.
He fed both an addictive staple diet of ‘No Surrender’, ‘Not an Inch’, and ‘Never, never, never’ using the tactics of direct street confrontation. The Big Man created the iconic image – Paisleyites are not afraid to protest.
It should not come as any surprise that within a year of agreeing to politically sup soup with Shinners, that same confrontational grassroots have reacted in the way he trained them for four decades and sparked coups within his Free Presbyterian Church, party and Stormont Executive.
A devoted family man, children often became unwittingly his best campaigners when handed dozens of election posters for them to carry about.
In April 1970, during the Stormont by-election campaign and Paisley was the Protestant Unionist runner, he canvassed strongly in the staunchly Protestant village of Clough, Co Antrim.
Clough is not just a pulse in Unionism – the village reflects the very heart and soul of Unionism itself. Win Clough, and you will the election.
I was a primary school pupil. My dad, Rev Robert Coulter, was honorary president of the local Unionist Party branch and the area’s Presbyterian minister.
Fundamentalist and working class chums came into the local village school brandishing Paisley posters.
My first encounter with Paisleyism was a sore backside for chanting pro-Unionist Party slogans and referring to this fledgling messiah as “Peashooter Paisley”. It earned me a few fundamentalist hob-nailed boots on the ass.
It wasn’t that Paisley was offering a radical agenda. He just knew how to ‘wind up’ his supporters and they interpreted these demagogue speeches as green lights to physically harass and intimidate Official Unionists off the streets.
North Antrim had been an Ulster Unionist bastion well before the creation of the ruling Ulster Unionist Council in 1905. A matter of weeks after Paisley’s victory in Bannside, came the Westminster General Election of June 1970 where Unionist stalwart Henry Clark was the sitting MP.
I was recruited into the Unionist campaign as a primary pupil. I walked into the Presbyterian manse sitting room to serve Clark his sandwiches after a disastrous canvass around Clough.
Paisley supporters had blocked Clark’s car in a farmer’s lane using a caravette. Even violence was threatened, and eventually the Drumcree-style standoff was prevented when the Unionist team abandoned the hustings.
Clark was clearly shaken, smoking a cigarette, with my father and another key Unionist strategist, the late Rev John Brown from Bushmills, trying to calm Clark. Worse was to follow when a message was brought to him that Paisley supporters had daubed ‘Shoot Clark’ graffiti in the village. Clark went physically white.
The seeds of revolutionary tactics which Paisley sowed among working class loyalists in my home village were to grow into openly confrontational thorns.
So was it any wonder, Paisley’s embracing of power-sharing with Sinn Fein met with the thorns of dissent from grassroots unionism?
As a preacher, Paisley was a staunch, Bible-thumping evangelist. As a journalist, I once covered the installation of elders service at his Free Presbyterian Church in Cloughmills, near my home.
I always left every religious Paisley meeting with a single thought – why couldn’t Paisley have stuck solely to Gospel preaching and he could have sparked a global revival as big as noted American evangelist Billy Graham, seeing thousands become ‘born again’ believers?
I have watched school and university chums interpret Paisley’s political rhetoric as a green light to become involved with loyalist paramilitaries, such as Third Force and the UVF.
I have watched Paisley supporters physically jostle and thump my dad – an Ulster Unionist – during his 1983 Westminster campaign.
But behind the Hell fire cleric and No Surrender unionist venom, was a devoted husband to wife Eileen. I only once witnessed despair on Paisley’s face.
During the election count for the 1982 Assembly in Ballymena Town Hall, Eileen bumped her head. Paisley immediately abandoned our interview to be with her. I caught a glimpse as he tenderly cared for her – he was almost in tears with worry.
For Big Ian, while God was his spiritual shepherd, Eileen was his physical rock.
He always referred to me as “young man” or “young Coulter” when we met, once complaining to my dad about an article I had written when I was in my mid 40s, emphasising the role of the family in Paisley’s outlook.
It was the 2003 Assembly election count in Ballymoney. Both Paisley senior and my dad had been elected on the first count. Later that day, Paisley senior approached dad to complain about my article. Dad told Paisley senior that I was in my forties, married with kids, and offered to give Paisley senior my mobile number.
Paisley’s reaction was typical of the man who believed in the power of the family unit: “No Robert, you’re his father; you speak to him!”
Paisley has often been compared to the Grand Old Duke of York who led his men up to the top of the hill, and down again – except Paisley left them there. This fuelled a perception of hypocrisy about Paisley.
He would picket meetings of the Evangelical Prayer Breakfast movement because my dad was present with Catholic priests, yet Paisley could meet face to face with the Irish Catholic leadership before signing the St Andrews Agreement.
Paisley had the skills of knowing when to pull himself back from the brink – but many of his supporters, almost politically drunk with the fervour of his speeches, did not know when the red line should not be crossed.
How many young loyalists ended up in jail because they took the words of Paisley rhetoric too literally? How many Catholics are dead because loyalist death squads put their own specific spin on Paisley’s hard-hitting speeches?
As president of the Clough Unionist branch, my dad was once called upon in the early 1970s to escort the land-owning Unionist chairman from the meeting because of a lynch mob of Paisley supporters. The chairman was dubbed ‘Dutch Doherty’ by the Paisley loyalists because of the former’s likeness to the republican icon.
Paisley’s political genius was not in what he said, but in his oratory skills in getting the blood boiling.
In 1987, during the General Election campaign, I was the North Antrim Press Officer for the Young Unionists, the UUP’s youth wing. Paisley was the agreed candidate in the protest campaign against the Anglo Irish Agreement.
To give us an identity, the only way we could out-gun Paisley was to be more Right-wing than Paisley, and North Antrim YUs became the most Right-wing in the UUC.
During the hustings one evening as we drove our canvassing cars through the village of Broughshane, we passed the Sinn Fein election team in its cars.
We screeched to a halt, reversed at speed, and piled out of the cars to physically confront the Shinners. Thankfully, wise heads prevailed on both sides and a violent confrontation was averted.
But here we were – young UUP members in our pin-stripped suits baying to “kick the crap out of the Provies”; had we, too, swallowed the potent rhetoric of Ian Paisley on the need to smash Sinn Fein?
Just as Paisley senior relentlessly pursued his opponents within unionism, so too, did his supporters.
In 1998, Independent Orangemen who had been to the fore in forming the overtly anti-Catholicism Caleb Foundation succeeded in getting my book exposing these links – The Orange Card - from being published.
Paisley senior himself has been a victim of the ethos of coups, plots and purges which he constantly fed his supporters since forming the Free Presbyterian Church in 1951.
Listen to religious commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online at www.thisissunshine.com