DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ian Paisley has hinted how he plans to fill his time after retiring as Northern Ireland’s first minister -- by taking a “gospel bus” south to mainly Catholic Ireland to win converts for his Protestant church.
Paisley, who founded the Free Presbyterian Church in 1951 and once called the pope “the Anti-Christ”, is a hero to many of Northern Ireland’s majority Protestants who admire his staunch defense of the province’s position within the United Kingdom.
The 81-year-old preacher last year set aside decades of hatred to work with predominantly Catholic Irish nationalist foes in administering Northern Ireland’s day-to-day affairs.
But in May he will step down as first minister in a power- sharing government that ushered in political stability after a peace deal in 1998 helped end violence that killed 3,600 people.
Paisley told Irish media he would not be driving the converted camper van, which bears the slogan “Transporting the Gospel Jesus Christ and Him Crucified”, but would be outside it using a loudspeaker to spread his beliefs.
“We get a lot of interest from Roman Catholic people which may seem strange to some but it’s always been our evangelist preaching to reach out to everyone irrespective of their religious identity,” The Irish Times quoted him as saying.
Paisley, whose breakaway version of Presbyterianism already has two churches in the Republic of Ireland as well as a presence in North America, Australia and Britain, said the bus tour should improve its image south of the border in predominantly Catholic Ireland.
But Dublin media seemed wary of the arrival this summer of what they called the “battle bus”.
“He plans to launch a religious crusade to convert the Republic from Romanism and stop a drift towards materialistic paganism,” The Irish Independent wrote.
Paisley’s fundamentalist reading of the Bible and separatist attitude to other churches means that while he his revered by his followers, there are many in Northern Ireland -- Catholic and Protestant alike -- who view him as a rabble-rousing bigot.
Reporting by Andras Gergely, edited by Richard Meares