Politics: No surrender - Paisley's fire and brimstone gospel

Defender of loyalist `faith' rages against papist conspiracy. Kim Sengupta reports

THE NOISE at the ultra-loyalist rally at Moigashel in Co Tyrone was deafeningly loud, repetitive and insistent. There was also a booming lambeg drum, traditionally used in Orange parades - but it was no match for the Rev Ian Paisley.

To his critics Mr Paisley, fiery preacher, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and standard bearer of the `no' campaign against the Stormont agreement, symbolises the historical intransigence of Ulster Protestantism.

According to the polls, Mr Paisley has become a catalyst in the referendum campaign. He is entrenching the views of some loyalists who fear betrayal and slide towards united Ireland, but there are also those who are being driven into the `yes' camp by what they see as his negativism and demagoguery.

The Government and the Ulster Unionist Party plan to capitalise on this in the run-up to polling day on 22 May. But Northern Ireland observers point out that Mr Paisley's involvement and influence in the province's politics is as long-standing as the conflict itself, and you write him off at your peril.

The "Big Man", now aged 72, still has formidable pulling power. At the Moigashel rally, around 300 people turned up to stand in the rain and hear his invective against the peace process, and his description of its backers as agents of the devil.

On the makeshift platform, Mr Paisley was surrounded by the leading figures of the "no" campaign. In the wet night, under flickering street lights, the speeches were a mixture of aggression and fatalism. Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, and George Mitchell, who chaired the multi-party talks, had conspired to deliver free Ulster into a papist united Ireland, declared Mr Paisley. David Trimble and other pro-agreement Unionists were traitors who had been suborned by the British government.

Thumping his fist into his palm, almost straining out of his tightly- buttoned white raincoat and tightly-knotted Union Jack tie, Dr Paisley raged: "They are liars. They have graduated from the devil's school.

"They have destroyed the act of the Union and given the title deeds of Ulster to Dublin on a plate. These people have sold out Ulster. As for me, I would rather starve than take filthy British money."

The audience who blocked the town's main road included associates of the Loyalist Volunteer Force who went on a killing spree of Catholics after the assassination of their leader, Billy Wright, in the Maze prison.

Mr Paisley has publicly dissociated himself from them. But also present were many ordinary working-class and middle-class Protestants who seemed bewildered that their loyalty to the Union appears to have been flung in their faces. They fear they have been sacrificed for the sake of political expediency.

There were the standard attacks on Sinn Fein, the IRA and republicanism, but the real venom was directed at Unionists who are backing the peace accord.

Posters decried the alleged betrayal: "What's the difference between David Trimble and Wolfe Tone? - 200 years," said one. Leaflets were handed out by courteous shaven-headed young men describing David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party as "the IRA's secret weapon".

The peace process is expected to face its most serious threat in the coming loyalist marching season. To those present, it was their birthright to take part in these marches without interference from the Government or republicans. Mr Paisley made his contribution: "Some of us here will be back up Drumcree and down again ... it's no, it's no and it's no surrender."

Afterwards in the local Orange Hall, a quieter and more subdued Dr Paisley, as if spent by his rage, answered questions from a group of journalists. He had nothing against Catholics, he stressed, but added there is a theological theory that the Pope "was the anti-Christ".

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