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Taking tea with the Paisleys

19 September 2014

THE obituaries of Ian Paisley make for fascinating reading. It is easy to forget just how vile his rhetoric most often was, but the Telegraph's obituarist was happy to remind us: "In 1958 he denounced the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret for 'committing spiritual fornication with the anti-Christ' by visiting Pope John XXIII. In 1962 he handed out Protestant pamphlets in St Peter's Square, and accused the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, of 'slobbering on his slippers' when he met the Pope. In 1963, after John XXIII's death, he expressed his satisfaction that 'this Romish man of sin is now in Hell'."

Incidentally, that last phrase is a reminder of how helpful it is, when you are going to say something both silly and nasty, to say it using words that no one would ever speak in ordinary life: "Romish" does a lot of work in making the poor dead Pope seem alien.

Paisley could sound exactly like Christopher Hitchens. The Times quoted his exhortation to a Roman Catholic priest: "Priest Murphy, speak for your own blood- thirsty, persecuting, intolerant, blaspheming, political-religious papacy, but do not dare to be a spokesman of free . . . men." Well, all right, Paisley referred to "Free Ulster man", which neither Hitchens nor Dawkins would say, but the phrase does show how much of the Oxford Atheist rhetoric is lifted almost unchanged from Victorian imperialist hatred of Rome.

He loved the propaganda of the deed as well. The Times again: "While forging his early extremist reputation, he produced and mocked a Roman Catholic eucharist wafer during a televised speech to the Oxford Union, denouncing those who believed it sacred, and he famously threw snowballs at Jack Lynch, the Irish prime minister, when he visited Northern Ireland in 1967."

I don't think the fact that he was later bought off, like the remains of the IRA, with a share of the spoils of the Peace Agreement, improves the memory of his moral character at all. On the other hand, The Guardian, perhaps the least likely paper to approve of him, had the most touching and humanising reminiscence, from its Ireland correspondent, Henry McDonald, who was raised a Catholic in Belfast.

As a teenage Goth, he had come into contact with Paisley's daughter Rhonda, who ran a mission in the centre of the city: "Exuding the same charm that her father deployed on the campaign trail, Rhonda spoke to, had tea with and sometimes counselled the kids that came together most Saturdays and sometimes after school at the fountain in the heart of central Belfast.

"Before long, out of pure curiosity, we decided to take up Rhonda's invite to come up to the Paisley homestead in East Belfast. There we were treated to games of snooker, vast pyramids of variously filled sandwiches, and Bible tracts designed to woo us away from the satanic temptations of early teen sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.

"Although most of us succumbed to that trio of decadent delights, Rhonda did succeed at least in showing a side to the Paisley family that none of us (almost all from Catholic-Nationalist-Republican backgrounds) ever saw in the media: a caring, loving family who actually and quite genuinely thought that all we needed was their help."

IN ALL the concern about the Yazidis who are being so vilely persecuted in Iraq, not very many have, until now, explained what it is they actually believe. A long piece by Gerard Russell in the London Review of Books goes some way to fixing this.

The spiritual leaders, known as Sheikhs, abstain from pork, but also from lettuce. They have no coherent explanation for the second prohibition. "The Yazidis, and other religious groups in the hills and mountains that separate Turkey from the Arab world, preserve rituals and beliefs that Jullian [the Apostate] would recognise."

The Yazidis believe the world is ruled by seven angels, of whom the chief is Malak Taoos, "the peacock angel". He may or may not be the devil: they identify him with Azazael, and Iblis. "Malak Taoos was once the chief of all angels; he rebelled against God and was cast down into hell . . . but repented and was forgiven. And now, once again governs the world on behalf of the ineffable, unacknowledgeable deity. Hell, and the devil, no longer exist in Yazidi theology."

I find this horribly moving, considering the evidence the Yazidis have all around them (and through most of their history) for the activity of some force very like the devil.

AND so to the ridiculous. No one seems to have picked up on the grotesque horror of the "Facilitated conversations" in which the bishops, in groups of three, must discuss their sexual lives with one another. If Ian Paisley were still alive, he would undoubtedly denounce it as a Papist plot to introduce celibacy for all higher clergy, whatever their inclinations.

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