MOYGASHEL, Northern Ireland -- Rain and darkness fall as the Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley stands on a rusty cargo trailer and preaches his old-time political religion to 200 supporters assembled by a gas station on the main street in this Protestant heartland town.
Paisley rails against the Northern Ireland peace accord, calling it a sellout, demanding that it be stopped in its tracks. Campaigning to sway the hearts and minds of voters ahead of a referendum Friday in which people on both sides of the Irish border will be asked to vote yes or no on the agreement, Paisley all but delights in being the Dr. No of the north.
"It's no," he shouts. "It's no. And it's no surrender."
The crowd cheers, and Paisley smiles, another audience conquered in what could be his last hurrah. The fundamentalist firebrand preacher-politician is trying to torpedo the peace agreement brokered by the British and Irish governments seeking to establish a new political order in Northern Ireland. Paisley is helping lead the No campaign, a loosely organized collection of disaffected Protestant politicians and community activists.
"I'm not some Johnny-come-lately loyalist with a little rump of people behind him," he says.
Polls show the agreement will pass with strong margins on both sides of the border. But Protestants in Northern Ireland are wavering. Ironically, Paisley might be the best advertisement for the Yes campaign, with polls showing he's more of a turnoff than a turn-on to undecided voters.
Relishing the fight
At 72, his hair silver, his voice strong, Paisley relishes yet another fight. While most view the peace agreement as a way to end nearly 30 years of terrorism that has claimed more than 3,200 lives, Paisley delivers a no-retreat, no-surrender message on behalf of those Protestants who fear that the six counties that make up Northern Ireland might one day be swallowed up by Ireland and its Roman Catholic majority.
Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party were initially in the peace talks that led to the deal that was agreed upon April 10. He walked out after the entrance of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing.
Then, at the 11th hour, Paisley reappeared like a ghost from Christmas past, storming the gates at Stormont Castle for a raucous news conference as the parties were putting the final touches on the deal. Now, he's on the march.
"This is the most important challenge Ulster ever had," he says. "It's life or death."
Paisley has loomed for decades as one of Northern Ireland's more charismatic and controversial figures. He has led street demonstrations in Belfast and raised his voice in anger in London's House of Commons, where he has been a member since 1970. In elections to the European Parliament, Paisley routinely out-polls all others in Northern Ireland.
From preaching in tents as a teen, Paisley has risen to lead his own Free Presbyterian Church, which he formed in 1951. His critics have accused him of being an anti-Catholic bigot, and in the past he has labeled the Catholic church "the enemy," and the pope "the Antichrist." In the lapel of his coat is a pin that says, "Jesus is Lord."
"Of course I'm a Protestant. And I have no apology to make," he says. "And I don't ask a Roman Catholic to make an apology for him[self]. And I'm against the pope in the sense that he claims to be the vicar of Christ on earth. I don't believe that."
As for calling the pope the Antichrist, Paisley says, "He may not like it. I'm called the Antichrist, too. But that's just too bad."
Loved or hated, Paisley remains a formidable figure.
"A man like Dr. Paisley only turns up every other generation. It's his oratory, his personality and his convictions," says William Thompson, a member of Britain's Parliament who has joined the No campaigners.
Others claim that Paisley has inflamed passions to the detriment of Northern Ireland.
Brian Barton, a historian at the Queen's University, Belfast, has written that "few individuals did more than Paisley to reinstate the gun in local politics or to foment violent clashes in the province's streets."
About Paisley, one thing is certain: He can still stir a crowd.
A loyalist audience
Moygashel is his kind of town, Protestant, patriotic and working-class, where the air is thick with the smell of coal fires and frying fish. The local linen mill shut down years ago, but the town refused to go under.
Paisley's rally brings the town to a halt. Cars are parked in the middle of the main street. Union Jacks are unfurled. The No campaign leaders offer prayers and speeches against what one of them calls "this iniquitous agreement."
A half-dozen politicians and preachers are simply Paisley's warm-up act.
Bundled against the chill in a tan raincoat, Paisley starts slowly, picking up campaign leaflets from the Yes crowd, dismissing them with a wave of the hand. He takes a few digs at the Protestant politicians who are leading the charge for the Yes vote.
And then, he shouts, "We are free-born Ulster men and women. We are British by our birth, by our heritage and by our culture. And we are not going around with a begging bowl to anybody. We helped this nation when this nation needed help. We gave them the best thing that we could give them. We gave them our young manhood. And a whole generation of young men died at the Somme [in World War I] to keep this country where it is. And we did the same in World War II.
"And I say, to the British government, you don't understand us. Because we're not like you. We are not going to be bought at a price."
Paisley tells the crowd, "If we win this, we'll be calling the shots." And by the end, the crowd is roaring and singing "God Save the Queen," with Paisley finishing off the final chorus with a flourish, "Ulster Forever!."
Yet in this campaign, the No leaders are the under-funded underdogs, surviving on the coins and bills collected from their supporters. Arrayed against them are the British and Irish governments, virtually all the local political parties, and the Clinton administration, which has served as an international cheerleader for the agreement.
David Trimble, the leader of Northern Ireland's main Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, is leading the local campaign for the Yes vote. Trimble condemns critics of the peace plan as "cheap, misleading and negative." He says the No campaigners are offering alternatives that "are neither credible nor achievable and they know that. I am sick of listening to the tired rhetoric of those who have failed the unionist people in the past."
Even if they lose the referendum, the No campaigners vow to take their fight into the proposed 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly. Working inside, they plan to raise havoc over a deal that envisions new links between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Besides those links, the No campaigners are against the release of terrorist prisoners and the impending reform of the Protestant-dominated local police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
"We are in a position to stymie the whole workings of the agreement," Paisley says.
He won't back down. He plans to wreck the Northern Ireland accord. He plans to have a hearty last laugh against all his critics.
"My enemies want me to die," he says. "I don't intend to die. I intend to live a long time."
Pub Date: 5/17/98