”I’m not a Catholic, but …”. Probably the most unusual and eyebrow-raising phrase you will read written by someone called Ian Paisley. But sometimes it’s good to shatter stereotypes. My father taught me that we are all born equal, and while his public persona may have had the effect of making people of different beliefs feel uncomfortable, I witnessed a man who could see the other person’s point of view – and who encouraged his son never to take things at face value.
I was brought up in a pastor’s manse. From a very early age I had a clear sense that we were growing up in a community that needed help and guidance and that the pastor offered a refuge: a shoulder to cry on and the opportunity to ask for God’s help. That meant people of all backgrounds, all faiths and none: very often, it was a Roman Catholic visitor who wanted a prayer said for them and their situation.
As a public representative since 1996 and in Westminster for the past 10 years, I’ve never got away from the belief that my role is not unlike that of a pastor. Trying to give comfort and help to folk in trouble. And again, it’s people from all backgrounds and faiths who come to me. Everybody’s problems are different but their needs for comfort, help, discernment and guidance are all equal.
On that journey my many Roman Catholic constituents have given me an insight into the practical day-by-day impact of their faith in their daily and varied lives. What strikes me most is that they are unashamed and are never embarrassed about having a faith that promotes devotion and values family, children and life. These values are identical to my own beliefs. Whilst my faith may not require me to light a candle for a bereaved loved one or friend, I wouldn’t dismiss lightly that kind of public display or token of concern and thought. Even Christians can sometimes be too stiff-upper-lipped to express emotion.
I’ve been a long-time campaigner for the protection of the rights of the unborn. It is without doubt that the strongest public and private encouragement I receive in this campaign has come from my Roman Catholic constituents. They are quite happy to tell me that they disagree with many aspects of my politics. But they say that’s easily put aside when they know I’m fighting faithfully on this matter. To hear them say this – either privately in whispers or more publicly – brings a wave of real encouragement and a sense that I am doing the right thing. Just in the last six months, I’ve received over 800 letters and emails from constituents who are Roman Catholic offering support on this one issue. That cannot be overvalued.
As an evangelical Protestant I get tired by the embarrassment some of my faith have in declaring pro-life views. They say to me: “Yes, Ian, you might think that but you can no longer say it,” or “ I agree with you, but we’ve just got to leave it with the Lord and realise we can’t do anything about it.” Frankly, that lack of faith appals me. Maybe it’s because I was brought up by a man of action that I just won’t let go. But I think it’s also the fact that my Roman Catholic constituents want a champion, even when the odds are stacked so decisively against us all on this issue.
I admire that loyalty. I love that determined spirit. In the past election one of my proposers was a prominent Roman Catholic campaigner for the unborn called Bernie Smith. She runs a pressure group called Precious Life. She very happily signed my Westminster nomination on the basis of my pro-life credentials. I was moved by the fact that she was publicly happy to nail her colours to the mast.
Northern Ireland is a small place. That sort of public declaration doesn’t go unnoticed. The local parish priest also wrote to me before the last election. He told me he was openly urging anyone who would listen to him to support me because of these credentials. Then, in a practical way, the community put their money where their mouth is, sending me members to join my campaign team to put literature through doors and talk to constituents about the matter.
That reminded me of why I admire my Roman Catholic friends. I am so grateful to them for sharing the same values about the right to life for the most vulnerable.