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  • Writer's pictureHollis Robbins

Interviewing Ian Paisley, September 1985

If the internet had existed in 1985, I might have done a better job in interviewing the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, when he visited New Hampshire and I found myself the only local reporter allowed access to him. I looked today at the yellowed clips of my reporting on his visit and wish I had been able to do a deep dive beyond what I could read in the local library.

Paisley had been granted a restricted visa to visit Londonderry, NH in September 1985 solely to "preach the gospel" at the Londonderry (NH) Free Presbyterian Church of Northern Ireland, a recent branch of the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church Paisley had founded in 1951. A North Carolina minister, Rev. David Brame, had been sent up to NH to found the church and somehow Paisley was invited. I was a freelancer for the Nashua Telegraph that fall and the visit supposed to happen in my coverage area so I went to interview David Brame.

My interview with Brame in the 9.12.85 Telegraph is wonderfully flat. I simply let him talk.

"People accuse of of being unloving because we do not, like some people say, 'let people go their own way,' and 'let people believe what they want to'" Brame adds. "'Religion is a private matter, don't bother them,' they say. But if I firmly believe they are in error, and that that error is going to lead them to hell, then the only way I can really express love for them is to point that out to them."

"If you go by someone's house, and see them sitting comfortably in their living room, and yet you notice the top corner of the house is beginning to burn, you don't say 'well, that's their private concern.' You go and do whatever you have to -- you bust the door down, you break the windows in order to get in there and warn them. Well that's the way I view it -- they are in danger of hellfire, and therefor the most loving thing I can do is try and alert them to the danger."

Very exciting stuff, written flatly. I also reported in a story just below that the pastor of the Londonderry Presbyterian Church, Roland Weterveldt, was mad. Partly he was mad that Paisley's visit was overshadowing his own church's 250th anniversary, and partly because his role was redundant. "We have four fundamentalist churches in this community...two Baptist churches, a Fundamentalist Christian Church and the independent Trinity Bible Church."

In the next day's Telegraph, 9.13.85, the headline of my story was, "Paisley talks in need of new site." Apparently "the Highlander Inn and Resort suddenly and without explanation has canceled reservations for a series of religious conferences later this month by the Rev. Ian Paisley." David Brame was shocked, I reported. "The manager of the Highlander Inn could not be reached for comment," I also reported. Finally, I reported that the Catholic Diocese of Manchester issued a statement concerning Paisley's visit to New Hampshire. The Rev. Frances J. Christian, the chancellor of the diocese, said: "It is our fervent prayer that Ian Paisley's presence in New Hampshire, and the foundation of a community which subscribes to his misguided principles, will have no lasting negative impact upon the citizens of our state."

On 9.20.85, the day before Paisley was to arrive, I filed a story that appeared with the headline, "Minister hopes Paisley visit will be trouble-free." The story doesn't give the new location of the visit but I quote the FBI spokesman John J. Cloherty saying nothing had come to the bureau's attention about trouble.

Sunday, 9.22.85, Paisley preached the first of three sermons outside under a tent on Litchfield road on the property of local attorney Henry Paul. Protesters were everywhere. The front page of the paper reflects my tag-team reporting with Joann Goslin, a seasoned staff reporter for the Telegraph (I was a freelancer). She wrote the lead story "Paisley wins shouting bout; two arrested." I covered the protestors, headlined "They have shaken hands with the devil." "'There is a terrorist among you!' cried one protester. 'Next you'll be inviting Hitler and Idi Amin to speak here!'"

I also had a sidebar piece, "Officials walk the yellow line," quoting local selectman Norman Russell eyeing the protesters and the worshippers, saying "this is what democracy is all about."

When I wasn't reporting, I joined the worshippers and stood at the back of the tent. Everyone should have the experience of a revival meeting. It's incredible, raucous, uplifting, wild, enthusiastic mayhem. I've never been to a rave but I imagine it is like a tent revival meeting. Loud preacher preaching. Hands in the air. Shouting. Singing. This was years before I became a scholar of African American texts and spent any time in Black churches, which usually feature a similar vocal enthusiasm. This first time was a white church in rural New Hampshire, under a tent, filled with "Praise Jesus," with loudspeakers protesting some hundred or so yards away. It was awesome. This was not my usual buttoned-up NH experience.

On Monday, I landed an interview with Paisley. Apparently I had seemed sincerely interested in the worshippers and the whole phenomenon, without judging. The headline: "Paisley fires own charges; Explains stand in interview." The report starts out strong. "The Rev. Ian Paisley laughs at protesters who accuse him of fascism. "Fascism is the child of Roman Catholicism," he said. "Hitler and Mussolini were both sons of the Roman Catholic Church."

In the relaxed atmosphere of Paul's home, Paisley spoke freely about his religious and political positions. He cannot do that publicly under the restrictions of his visa, which prohibit him from making public statements of a political nature.

The rest of the interview is largely letting Paisley and others -- Henry Paul, Rev. Brame and his wife, and Rev. Alan Cairns -- speak. Had the internet been available and I had studied more, I might have listened less. Who knows. As it was, I think I captured the righteous snark as well as the anti-Catholic views that were perhaps even more virulent in private. "Paisley said the liberalized Protestant churches are falling prey to the Roman Catholic Church. He said the Church of Rome is losing out very rapidly in many areas of the world but is more powerful in Presbyterian areas where the teachings of the Reformation are weakening," I reported.

"You have brought a murderer to Londonderry," cried Paisley to Paul, mimicking the crises of the protesters.

"That Pastor who denounced me, said Paisley, "If he was an honest man, he would have denounced the protesters for disrupting a church service." Paisley was referring to the Rev. Rowland Westervelt of the Londonderry Presbyterian Church, who had called Paisley's visit an insult to the people of Londonderry.

Cairns said Paisley ignores and treats with contempt any member of the IRA. He said he would never share a platform with an IRA supporter, or do a radio broadcast with one. He said that, although the protesters call Paisley a murderer, the IRA members are really the murderers.

It isn't a great interview -- it isn't an interview at all, really, though I got to sit in the room with the man and listen and freely report. I got access. And did nothing really with it.

I filed three more stories in the following days: "He brought trouble, God's word" on 9.26.85 and "Paisley's gone, but Londonderry won't soon forget," on 9.27.85, in which I quoted Town Administrator David Wright totalling costs of $2,375.10, mostly extra police duty, but which "did not include the cost of his aggravation." There was discussion of whether to pass an ordinance prohibiting protesting religious meetings but no real enthusiasm. On 10.1.85 I reported "Londonderry bills church that invited Paisley." The Board of Selectman presented the $2,375.10" bill to the Free Presbyterian Church of Northern Ireland and voted to give letters of commendation to members of the Police Department who "demonstrated exceptional professionalism during the four protesters." "The motion passed unanimously," I reported. That was all I wrote.


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