Columns, International, Politics, Religion
May 18, 1998
MIKE BARNICLE IN THE BOSTON GLOBE: Prejudice from a pulpit


May 18, 1998

BELFAST — Ian Paisley stood yesterday at the pulpit of a fairly new church in order to preach ancient hatred to a dwindling congregation of old people, afraid they might be losing their future on Friday. Paisley, besides being a politician who prospered over the years on a platform built with bigotry, is minister at Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church, which is directly across the street from the 12th fairway of the Ormeau Golf Club.

Yesterday morning, promptly at 11:30, Paisley climbed the steps of a high pulpit inside his modern church, where no more than 50 men and women sat scattered through the huge double-decked arena waiting for word on what to do this week when Ireland votes on a referendum that could end decades of unreasonable death. He is a big man with a huge head covered with a shock of white hair. He has thick lips, strong hands, and a booming voice, and all were employed yesterday to push his faithful followers toward rejection of work done by George Mitchell, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerry Adams. “I had a confrontation the other day with a very nasty journalist,” Paisley shouted. “He asked me why I always say, `No,’ and I told him that God gave us 10 commandments and He said no in nine of them.

“The body says `no’ to germs or it will die. The soul says `no’ to sin or it dies too. And we must say `no’ Friday or our nation dies.”

Paisley built a constituency as well as a congregation around themes of contempt, revenge, and pure, raw anti-Catholicism. Yet, as election day nears, his grip on Protestant East Belfast — where many are poor and tired of visiting cemeteries or jails — seems weaker than ever.

“He’s a faker, he is,” Freddy Wilson was saying. “He’s only trying to keep himself in power now. He led us up the top of the mountain years ago, telling us all the time the Catholics would never get this and they’d never get that. And oh, how he hated the pope! But Protestants got just as tired of all the killing as Catholics did. Old Paisley, he just never changed. He’s still in it for himself, is all.”

Wilson is a 37-year-old unemployed dock worker and a Protestant. He stood at the bar of the Park View Lounge down the road from Paisley’s church, where the politician-preacher was merely halfway through a Sunday schedule of prayer meetings and speeches where his words become weapons hurled at anyone who favors peace. Paisley’s version of religion is simply prejudice from a pulpit; his sermons are cold and cruel and leave no room for any of the forgiveness found across town yesterday where 15,000 Catholics gathered at Milltown Cemetery for the annual blessing of the graves. How utterly Irish.

Milltown is a huge burial ground off Falls Road. Ten years ago, several people were killed here during a funeral for three unarmed Irish Republican Army members shot to death by British security forces in Gibraltar. Yesterday, the place was teeming with relatives saying the rosary in unison under a hot sun on Belfast’s version of Memorial Day, where the past is never farther away than the very next sentence out of someone’s mouth and where every headstone is a marble memory of a son, brother, uncle, or father lost in a long, weary war.

“My Tommy died two days after his 24th birthday,” Tom Kelly said about his son. “He was stabbed to death downtown by Protestants. They caught someone for it but nothing ever happened. My wife took a heart attack from it, and she died too. She’s over there.” He pointed past a row of granite Celtic crosses toward his wife’s grave. “So it has to be `yes’ Friday, doesn’t it? Otherwise it’s back to the same old thing.”

And as one crowd seemed comforted by hymns and rosary beads, Ian Paisley was across the river getting ready for the ritual of his evening sermon, where he twists prayer into a polemic and faith is defined by the depth of a parishioner’s fear. His thunderous hate has always been the beating heart of so many Protestants, but this week that thunder seems, more and more, to be off in the distance and part of a past that people on both sides want to bury.