By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
Forty-one years ago Ian Paisley was arrested and jailed for unlawful assembly after his part in a noisy and abusive protest at the Presbyterian Assembly in Howard Street, Belfast.
Jailed with him were two of his ministers, the Rev John Wylie and Ivan Foster.
The crowd Paisley led had unleashed a torrent of abuse on the newly elected moderator, the Rev Alfie Martin, because of his perceived liberalism.
In Paisleyite terms his liberalism meant the great sin of ‘ecumenism’. The crowd shouted ‘Pope head’, ‘Romanist’, and of course ‘Lundy’ at Martin and the other Presbyterian dignitaries and at the Queen’s representative in Northern Ireland, the governor, Lord Erskine, and his wife as they walked from the assembly buildings to a reception nearby.
Given this education that Paisley had provided to members of his Church, Paisley must have been quite relieved at the rather mild protest that greeted him as arrived last Friday for a meeting of its governing body.
No catcalls, just pictures of him and his ‘chuckle brother’ Martin McGuinness and a couple of derogatory slogans held up by about a dozen people who covered their faces with their placards.
Some handed out leaflets asking ‘Is Paisley a liar or a traitor?’ and, more tellingly, ‘Ian Paisley’s own words stand as a condemnation to him. He is guilty of all that he accused others of being guilty of.’
Forty-one years ago Paisley would have been standing alongside those protestors roaring at the top of his voice.
Luckily for him Friday’s objectors have not been able to find anyone to lead them publicly in their opposition to his sharing power with Sinn Féin.
There’s the rub. There is no-one.
Oh yes, there are voices in the wilderness, like Jim Allister, who’s apparently going to announce a new political party this week - but to what end?
To destroy the executive and all-Ireland bodies?
How? Who, pray, wants that?
Those who did on both sides of the fence had their chance in the assembly elections in March - and what happened?
They got slaughtered.
On the unionist side Bob McCartney’s opposition ended his political career, just as it will do for Allister.
Paisley also began as a voice crying in the wilderness and would have remained so had he not established his own Church - that gave him power and credibility a mere extremist unionist politician could never achieve.
It was the toxic mix of religion and politics that he fomented which propelled him to the forefront and supplied him a devoted following.
He perfected the classic role of a demagogue, presenting himself as an outsider determined to do battle with the establishment on behalf of all outsiders and the people who saw themselves as outsiders were the unionist working-class and peasantry.
He would lead them against the ‘fur-coat brigade’ of Ulster unionism, defend them against Lundys and ecumenists, people ready to sell the pass.
The day he was convicted in 1966 he harangued an Ulster Hall rally and told them: “With the help of God and the Protestants of Ulster, the day is coming when I will be in the House of Commons.
“The only way the Protestant people are going to be able to answer the ruling junta of Lundys in Stormont is to have someone there.”
Now he is the ultimate insider, exactly where he always wanted to be since no-one else could be trusted to save ‘the people of Ulster’.
He cannot have been surprised that a substantial group within his Church are deeply unhappy at this turn of events.
After all, they believed what he said all his life until this year.
Sources in his Church have told the media that if Paisley had insisted on remaining as moderator he would have lost a vote, so a compromise was reached whereby he will go in January.
It was the smart move to make.
It was time to step off the vehicle which he built and which gave him the respectability and momentum to take him to where he is today.
Will it make a difference to the political landscape here?
Not a bit.
No-one outside his Church cares who is moderator.