The deal between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party to maintain the new government at Westminster has focused attention on a party little known outside Northern Ireland. The DUP’s social conservatism – particularly its opposition to abortion and gay marriage – has led to protests, and its image is still largely defined by its founder, the late Ian Paisley. But today’s DUP is not quite the rabble-rousing party of the 1970s, although its culture is still formed by Northern Ireland’s distinctive Protestant fundamentalism.

What was unusual about the DUP for most of its history was not that it was socially conservative, but that there was no clear divide between its political and religious aspects. That is mostly because of Paisley’s dual role as party leader and moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church (FPC), the fundamentalist denomination he established as a young preacher in 1951 and continued to lead until 2008. Paisley himself saw the two sides of his public life as inseparable and would frequently talk politics from the pulpit at Martyrs Memorial Church in Belfast, as well as giving his political stances an explicitly religious underpinning. Committed DUP activists would often see him as both a political and spiritual leader.

Since Calvinist fundamentalism has almost died out elsewhere in the United Kingdom, the FPC often seems more rooted in the American South than in modern British culture. It is a small church whose membership has never gone much above 10,000, or just over one per cent of Ulster Protestants, but under Paisley’s leadership it punched well above its weight. Much of this was due to Paisley’s charisma, but it also had the advantage of having set itself up as the hardest of hardline Protestant groups. Starting from the favourite fundamentalist text of 2 Corinthians 6:17 – “come out from among them and be ye separate” – the FPC gained a profile by furiously denouncing the Protestant churches it regarded as heretical or apostate. This included not just mainstream Presbyterians or Methodists, but even most of the smaller Evangelical denominations.

Catholics, of course, were not counted even as apostates. In the Paisley worldview, Catholicism was not Christian at all, but rather a pagan religion of demonic inspiration. It’s true that in Northern Ireland, religion has long been an ethnic marker with an uneven relationship to religious practice, but theology was not just a cosmetic part of the DUP’s anti-Catholicism. When Paisley stood up in the European Parliament to denounce Pope John Paul II as the Antichrist, he was standing on a historic Presbyterian position, though one that most Ulster Protestants would rather be quiet about today.

But the DUP’s profile has shifted over the years. The party’s urban/rural divide has been important for understanding this shift. Although Paisley drew a large congregation at his Belfast church, the Free Presbyterians were much more dominant in rural areas. The Belfast contingent was confusingly referred to by Northern Ireland commentators as the “secular” wing of the party, though figures such as Peter Robinson would still have been considered very religious by mainland UK standards. Where they did differ was that the urban leaders were more reluctant to couch their arguments in theological terms, preferring to rely on populism and a hard line on the constitution.

What shifted the balance was the DUP’s move away from being a party of protest to a party of power. The visible sign of this was the transformation of the elderly Paisley into a peacemaker, including his unlikely but genuine friendship with Martin McGuinness. This provoked unrest among some of his fundamentalist followers and led to him standing down from the FPC leadership after becoming First Minister.

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