No peace in Paisley's pulpit

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The Independent Online
ON Friday evening, with the peace agreement barely struck, the congregation of an East Belfast church was enjoying a special Good Friday service.

The church was packed, the congregation numbered more than 1,000. Extra chairs had to be placed in the aisles as the white-haired minister spoke to the people about the need to spread God's message.

The minister outlined some forthcoming church events, paused and then looked up. "These are serious and terrible times we are living in, politically," he roared.

He then launched into a long, aggressive tirade about David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, "doing deals with murderers" and weakening the Union. There were nods of agreement from the congregation and shouts of "Amen" directed towards the pulpit. The pulpit itself stood between two flags, one that of the Union, the other, the red and white flag of Ulster.

To the outsider it was an unusual scene, but the Martyrs' Memorial Free Presbyterian Church is no ordinary church and the Rev Ian Paisley is no ordinary minister.

For more than three-and-a-half decades, Mr Paisley has been delivering his firebrand mix of politics and Protestantism, speaking out whenever he believes the Union is threatened and refusing to be silenced.

The talks, which have delivered what many believe is Northern Ireland's best chance of peace, have delivered to Mr Paisley his greatest challenge yet: seeing the deal overturned.

"This deal cannot bring peace," he told the Independent on Sunday yesterday, denying he tried to mix religion and politics. "If Sinn Fein/IRA sign up to it, the Republican dissidents will simply continue bombing."

In the forthcoming referendums, which will decide the future of the settlement, Mr Paisley will be leading the No campaign. He refused to take part in the talks and makes no apologies for refusing to compromise.

"I am campaigning against this agreement because it strikes to the heart of the Union," he said. "Mr Trimble is trying to say the Union will be stronger and safer than ever. How can it be when we will have to have Sinn Fein/IRA in the government?"

To many observers, Mr Paisley's talk of breaking the agreement smacks of 1974, when his Democratic Unionist Party co-operated with other Unionists and Loyalist paramilitaries in a strike which brought down the power-sharing executive and destroyed the Sunningdale Agreement.

Whether Mr Paisley will be able to destroy this latest settlement more than 20 years later is one of the most important matters which will influence the future of Northern Ireland.

Commentators point out that Mr Paisley's DUP is waning.There is also a sense that he has misjudged the spirit of compromise. But, personally, he still commands huge support. In Belfast, some continue to see him as an iconic figure.