The late George Dawson, former Treasurer and Council member of the EPS, was remembered at a special inaugural legacy lecture given by EPS Secretary Mr Wallace Thompson in Ballymoney on Saturday 7 May 2022. The full text of the lecture is published below.
On this, the 15th anniversary of the passing of our good friend and brother George Dawson, I count it a great honour and privilege to have been asked to give this inaugural lecture in his memory.
Some years ago, I came across a poem entitled “The Indispensable Man”. It was written by a lady called Saxon White Kessinger and I know nothing about her. And the only reason I know about the poem is that a framed copy once hung in the office of my favourite singer, the late Jim Reeves.
I’ll not quote from it here now – although Dr Paisley once told me that no speech was complete without a poem – but the essence of it is that we shouldn’t get too carried away with a sense of our own importance. We might feel ourselves to be indispensable but we really aren’t.
And we know – don’t we – that when people depart this scene of time, they are spoken of for a while, but life moves on and the gap that they leave is often quickly filled.
There are, however, some very definite exceptions to that general rule. There are some people who leave a gap that is never really filled. They might not be indispensable – but they are irreplaceable. I would suggest that George Dawson was one of those people.
It goes without saying that George is missed most of all by his family – and our thoughts on this 15th anniversary are with Vi, Emma and Sara and the broader family circle. You knew him best, and, for you, the gap left by his untimely passing will never be filled. He is missed by you every day.
But he has left such a huge gap in so many other areas of life that it’s hard to know where to begin –
- He’s greatly missed by the Independent Loyal Orange Institution where he served with such distinction as Grand Master.
- He’s greatly missed by the Free Presbyterian Church where he had been elected an elder shortly before his death.
- He’s greatly missed by the Democratic Unionist Party where he served as MLA for East Antrim.
- He’s greatly missed by the business community where his skills and expertise were outstanding.
- He’s greatly missed by the Evangelical Protestant Society where he served as Treasurer and member of Council.
- He’s greatly missed by the Caleb Foundation, of which he was the founding chairman.
That list just scratches the surface and in itself it doesn’t do justice to George’s unique contribution to the spiritual, political, economic and cultural life of Northern Ireland.
For George was more than just the sum of his many roles. He brought an intellectual ability, breadth of vision – and – crucially – an integrity and commitment to principle which was second to none. That’s why he is held in such high esteem and why he accomplished so much in his short life.
He was also a thoroughly decent man – and even those who were opposed to what he stood for often spoke of his warmth of personality and sense of humour.
The gap left by George’s passing has not been filled – and I suspect it never will. Fifteen years on, how often do we find ourselves talking about George? All the various organisations that he was so involved in – the ones I’ve just referred to – they miss his counsel, his wisdom – and his friendship.
We wonder what he would have made of things – and we know that, had he been spared, he would have been playing a key role in so many areas of life.
We lost him much too soon. But there is a dear lady in my church who keeps reminding me that nothing happens to any of us outside of God’s sovereign plan. We have to be able to say with Job – “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord”.
I first met George Dawson by arrangement in a rain sodden Field in Rasharkin on the Twelfth of July in 1994. George had heard that I was interested in moving from the Orange Institution to the Independents and – true to form – he wasted no time!
His powers of persuasion were such that within a few months, I found myself Worshipful Master of a newly revived independent lodge – Pride of Ballymacarrett ILOL number 6 – based in East Belfast.
That encounter in the Field in Rasharkin was to be the start of a close friendship that was to last until George was called home on 7 May 2007.
I have fond memories of so many adventures and escapades as we sought, with others, to take our stand for the Protestant cause.
Let me briefly highlight one or two of those memories.
George and I – along with our brother Mervyn Storey and others – had informal meetings with the BBC in 1995 about the nature of religious broadcasting. Those were very useful meetings which helped to lay the foundations of a much closer and more productive working relationship with the media in general. Doors were opened for us at that time that – until then – had been firmly shut. The evangelical Protestant voice was – to some extent at least –being given greater respect. And we were determined that it should be heard.
Those meetings were also the catalyst for the creation of The Caleb Foundation – established here in this hall, I think, in February 1998. Caleb was such an important part of George’s legacy.
Those BBC meetings were not without humour. On one occasion, George gave me a mobile phone (a rare item in those days) and told me that he would introduce me as his “adviser”. During the meeting, it dawned on me that if the phone actually rang, I wouldn’t have the first clue what to do with it! It didn’t ring!
George also played an important role in the Evangelical Protestant Society at a time when that organisation needed to go through radical structural change. As a member of the EPS Council, George applied all his business skills and acumen to steer us through that difficult period.
At one crucial meeting, he was challenging the then secretary about the accuracy of the accounts. The meeting was tense and the secretary was under severe pressure. Then George’s chair suddenly broke and he landed on the floor. In other circumstances, this might have caused some concern for George’s well-being – as well as some mild amusement – but he simply got another chair and his interrogation continued as if nothing had happened. George was a good man – but he was not a man to be trifled with.
The EPS is in a much better place today – thanks in no small measure to George’s skills.
And on another personal note, George kindly offered my daughter Sharon a job in his DUP office and as a result she met a certain Mr Mark Dodds. Romance blossomed and wedding bells rang out in April 2011 – so I have to say that, for our family, George has left a very big legacy indeed!
But let me move on from personal recollections to examine George’s legacy in a little more detail.
George’s legacy is multi-faceted and – as we can see from the pop-up stands here in this hall – there are so many areas of that legacy that we could consider this afternoon.
In reflecting upon his life in preparation for this lecture, I felt it would be appropriate to focus our thoughts on the aspect of George’s life which was foundational to him – which motivated him above all else – and which underpinned all that he sought to do.
One of the headings in the pop-up stand is “Christian Action”. It states, “Taking a Biblical view and applying Christian values to current issues, in order to promote a positive active agenda for faith-based action”.
Here George sets us an excellent example. George was a Christian. He trusted Christ and Christ alone for salvation. He loved the Lord and he sought to serve Him with all his heart. He was a fervent evangelical Protestant. And he put his faith into action in every area of his life.
Just by way of an example – in his role in business, he was ahead of his time on environmental issues and the “green agenda” – but unlike Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough, George had a Biblical view of the world and how it was marred by the Fall. He was – to use what is now a term of abuse in some circles – a “Creationist”.
As we consider George’s legacy this afternoon, he stands before us as a wonderful example of the Christian in public life.
When the Caleb Foundation was established in 1998 under George’s direction and leadership, its aim was to promote and defend Biblical standards in society. At that time, we faced an uphill struggle. We were dismissed and ridiculed as dinosaurs and bigots who had no place in an increasingly secular society.
George revelled in the challenge. He was a man who was not ashamed to own his Lord or to defend His cause. He took his stand, but he did so in a way that gained respect from his opponents. This was obvious from his media interviews and in his contributions in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
A quick glance through Hansard will confirm that George, as a Christian politician, was in the forefront of the defence of Biblical morality in society. There was no ambivalence or ambiguity. George’s witness was crystal-clear.
Back in 1998, we felt we were being increasingly marginalised, but I don’t think even George could have foreseen the extent of that marginalisation today.
The trend towards a secular society has now become an avalanche. Christian values are now almost totally rejected and Northern Ireland is departing from its evangelical Protestant foundations at breakneck speed.
Take abortion. A few years ago, Northern Ireland was the most pro-life part of Europe, but now, suddenly, we have the most extreme pro-abortion regime in Europe. In the interests of what is euphemistically described as “modern healthcare” our children are literally being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.
Or take the LGBT+ agenda. The traditional, and Biblically based, model of family life is disintegrating before our very eyes – and we appear powerless to stop it.
Wrong is called right and truth is turned upside down. If we speak out, we are guilty of “hate speech”. As a result, few seem willing to raise their heads above the parapet for fear of the consequences. Where will this end?
Another area of concern is the growing lack of respect for the Lord’s Day. In an article last week in the “Irish News” the paper’s business editor referred to the days when the swings were tied up- that’s the one thing that’ll always be used to ridicule the “Ulster Sabbath”. He went on to speak about how the recent opening of bookies and bingo halls on a Sunday – on top of the changes in liquor licensing laws over Easter – ”marks a complete transformation of social change over the last 40 years”. And he’s right.
Sunday is now a day when anything goes. Last Sunday, we had the Belfast Marathon. Churches were adversely impacted. Christians who once took part in the Marathon can’t do so anymore because of their respect for the Lord’s Day. But, it’s only Christians who are affected – so who cares? Lip service will be paid to their concerns – but nothing, it seems, will stop the secular tide.
I am very sad that so few Christians in public life are prepared to speak out in defence of Sunday. Apart from religious reasons, there are strong arguments around family life and the need to give workers a day off.
We have come to a point where it seems that there is to be no place for the Bible in the public square. Oh, it’s OK to believe it in private, but we mustn’t let it have any influence on society as a whole.
Friends, we are in a dark place spiritually and we face unprecedented – and growing – levels of opposition and intolerance.
If George was here now in 2022, I have no doubt where he would have stood. There would have been no hint of weakening or of compromise on his part. He would have continued to defend Biblical standards – and he would have encouraged others to do the same. But he would have done so in a constructive, positive, charitable, gracious and winsome way. George’s case was always well prepared and well presented. Let us learn from his example.
There are many crucial issues facing us at the present time. The economy. The NHS. The Protocol. Power-sharing. The list is long. These issues have been debated and discussed at length – and voted on – in recent days. We have elected a new Assembly and we must pray for wisdom to be given to our politicians as they seek to chart a way ahead.
But I feel that the great need of the hour is the promotion of Biblical standards in public life.
I urge all Christians in public life to make this a priority going forward. We must call our Province and our nation back to God.
A few weeks ago, I was helping the children in my congregation with a project on William Wilberforce. As I read more about the man, my respect for him just grew and grew. He was one of the finest examples of a Christian politician you’ll ever come across. I would strongly recommend William Hague’s excellent biography.
Although they lived 200 years apart in very different times, the similarities between William Wilberforce and George Dawson are very striking.
Both men were strong, resolute, fearless and determined in the promotion of their faith. They were intellectually gifted. They promoted Biblical standards in society. They identified with the underdog and showed a compassion and concern for those in need. They were gracious in manner and well respected by friend and foe. And both were faithful to the end.
Importantly, both men were also pragmatists. They were principled pragmatists. They recognised that politics is the art of the possible.
Sometimes, Christians who are not involved in politics don’t fully realise that. They expect too much at times from our politicians. And politicians who do take a stand deserve the praise and support of the churches.
I have long argued for much greater co-operation – and much greater understanding – between Christian politicians and the faith sector – between politicians and the churches. We need a broad coalition to resist the secular tide. I have sought to do what I can to encourage this. I believe that George – with his breadth of vision and his grasp of the issues – would have been at the forefront of such initiatives.
We meet today in an Orange headquarters. From this platform, I want to urge the loyal orders to focus as much as they can on the defence and promotion of the evangelical Protestant faith. Yes, our culture is important. Our traditions are important. But our heritage is, above all else, a Biblical one. The loyal orders are, first and foremost, Protestant orders committed to the defence of the Reformed faith. Everything else is secondary.
If George was here today, I have no doubt that he would be calling the evangelical Protestant community – in all its various manifestations – to stand together as one – to contend for the faith – to live it out both in private and in public – to promote and defend it at every opportunity.
George was an evangelical and he was also a Protestant. To him, these were two sides of one coin.
Back in August 2000, George published a little volume called “From Spark to Flame!” – a series of brief biographies of leading Protestant Reformers. The final chapter is entitled “The Reformation – A Message for Today?” and at the end of it, George writes,
“When, humanly speaking, all was bleak, when there was only spiritual and social darkness God stepped in and using human instruments, the spiritual situation was transformed…..As we look out across our land there is much to discourage us. There is much spiritual darkness and decline. There is much that offends God….It is at such times that the power of God can be seen”.
When George was in the final stages of his illness, he mentioned to me that he had taken comfort from the words of Psalm 118:17, “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord”.
Did God fail to keep the promise of that verse? No, for although George died a few days short of his 46th birthday, we can say that he “being dead yet speaketh”. George the man is gone, but his spirit is still very much alive, and he speaks to us on this special occasion.
I end with a quote from William Wilberforce – “The best preparation for being a good politician, as well as a superior man in every other line, is to be a truly religious man. For this includes in it all those qualities which fit men to pass through life with benefit to others and with reputation to ourselves”.
That, to me, is a perfect summary of the life and testimony of my friend George Dawson.
He is gone but he will never be forgotten. Of him it can surely be said that he was one of that rare breed – the irreplaceable man.
Oh, for more people like George Dawson in these days.