Shining a light on the Protestant spectrum

IT is a lazy stereotype to depict all northern Protestants as flag-waving, Orange bigots with a siege mentality and bonfires for brains. These people do exist. Last month they were on the streets in Portadown and Newtownards to rage against the Northern Ireland Protocol and make futile threats about violent uprising, but they do not speak for the majority of their co-religionists. There is a broad range of opinion among the wider protestant population in the six counties. These views are drowned out by self-appointed ‘loyalists’ who shout loud to attract the attention of the cameras when they go looking for dramatic pictures and soundbites. These people are not motivated by money, power or sectarianism. When I worked for Reuters, the respected international news agency, the editors in London and Dublin constantly wanted to sound out ‘unionist opinions’ on Belfast’s Shankill Road. They were not interested in the views to be found in Belfast’s Reform Club, among the farming community on the border or at the Northern Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

It is this diversity among northern Protestants that makes effective leadership hard to find for unionism. The ousting of Arlene Foster and Edwin Poots from the Democratic Unionist Party, within a few days of each other, graphically illustrates the phenomenon. The party’s chief rival for votes, the Ulster Unionist Party, has fared no better. The haughty Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, a former Ulster Unionist Party member, has now inherited the poisoned chalice at the DUP but is sure to find the job impossible. On one side he has the back-to-the-future brigade in the Traditional Unionist Voice and on the other the liberal ‘Lundys’ in the Alliance Party. Donaldson has promised to end the Protocol, an international agreement which keeps Northern Ireland with one foot in the European Single Market, and ‘unite the people of Ulster’. It’s a shame he didn’t throw in world peace and a cure for cancer. He cannot deliver what is beyond his reach.

For a start the protestant faith in Ireland has many churches which range from the liberal and inclusive Unitarians, who were the founding fathers of Irish republicanism and encourage you to form your own views about God, to the Calvinists of the Free Presbyterian Church who worship the God of the Old Testament and believe everybody else is going to hell. The class spectrum is also strong from the wealthy Duke of Abercorn in the landed aristocracy and the business owning bourgeoisie to the out-of-work sons of shipyard workers in east Belfast many of whom leave school without a qualification. The class divide is even found among the loyal orders. The Royal Black Institution is considered a more genteel version of the Orange Order. There is an urban and rural divide which is plain to see during the marching season. In the countryside there are very few bonfires and most Orange walks pass off peacefully without causing offence to Catholics and nationalists. The first of the year takes place at Rossknowlagh in Donegal, in the Irish Republic, and there has never been any trouble with the ice cream-eating brethren some of whom live quite happily without a Queen. The flashpoints are in Portadown, Belfast and Londonderry. Lord Brookeborough in Fermanagh, a loyalist hero, wrote in his diaries how he disliked the ‘hooligans’ of Belfast.

The noblesse oblige which brought Brookeborough and the landed classes to the top of the unionist political pile has long since vanished and they have retired to their big houses in London. Terence O’Neill of the Maine could see Northern Ireland was at a crossroads and in need of reform as early as 1968 but was drummed out of his role as a reforming Prime Minister by the not-an-inch tub-thumpers of Ian Paisley and his fellow travellers. The business classes, represented by industrialists John Andrews and later Brian Faulkner, have also had their day. They had one eye on the economy but they too were squeezed out by Paisley and the abominable ‘No’ men who are happy to live in a wasteland, as long as it is a British wasteland, where they do not have to share power with nationalists. Now Paisley’s party has fallen apart because of the stubborn nay -sayers and Bible-bashers in its own ranks and unionism is all at sea 100 years after its only triumph – partition. 

The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 created a Civic Forum where a broader range of both nationalist and unionist views could be heard outside of the point-scoring environment of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It was unelected but represented a good cross-section of people who were not hostages to power politics and the temptation of high office. They gave generously of their time and ideas for little reward and often faced hostility from within their own communities. One of the first things the elected politicians did was to abolish this Forum. This is probably the first example of how the British government allowed a coach and horses to be driven over the carefully crafted GFA deal which brought the shooting to an end.

No constructive dialogue about the future of the people on this island is possible with the closed minds of unionists in Belfast or London. Only those people who are not answerable to the mob can engage in constructive talks about a form of progress in Ireland which might be acceptable to the majority on both sides of the border. The Civic Forum was probably our best vehicle for this initiative. Washington, Brussels, London and Dublin should encourage the re-establishment of this valuable think-tank and foster discussion within Northern Ireland about its future.

Ultimately unionism is not a political party with policies and ideas to tackle the pressing problem which face our small world. It is a protest movement which is rooted in a past where matters were black and white. Find us people who can see red, white and blue and the full spectrum.


© Maurice Neill




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