Belfast Telegraph

Getting behind the stereotypes: South of the border the overwhelming image of the Ulster Prod is one of bewilderment

Those interested in establishing real reconciliation in the Republic could do worse than read novelist David Park's rounded, kaleidoscopic vision of Ulster Protestants, writes Henry McDonald

At the Doolin Writers Festival in May 2013, an "alien" landed in this bucolic corner of Co Clare. His presence at Hotel Doolin divided opinion in the hall.

This "creature from another planet" outraged and shocked as much as he entertained and amused. To those in the former camp, he was described as "something crawling from under a rock", or as a malignant force that had blown into the peninsula from a darker, stranger climate.

This "alien" was Terri Hooley, hippy rebel, punk impresario, record shop owner, raconteur and libertine.

Hooley was the opening speaker at the festival and regaled those attending with tales of wild nights with rock stars like Phil Lynott and physical confrontations with John Lennon over the latter's support for the IRA.

But perhaps the sharpest intakes of breath among the audience - provoking a mini-walkout - was Hooley's protest about the attitude of the south to the north during and even after the Troubles.

"You in Dublin were living in heaven while we were living in hell," Hooley boomed before pointing out that 75% of the Republic's population under the age of 40 had never been to Northern Ireland.

His mild accusations and anti-nationalism (as virulent as his loathing for the unionist establishment) did not go down well with a small section of those at the event, although the majority appeared to have been wooed by his anarchic, turbo-charged anecdotes.

If a radical socialist, secular Protestant from Belfast, who has stood up to the baseball bat-wielding thugs of loyalism, could encounter enmity among some southerners, just imagine what their reaction might have been to a mainstream unionist outlining the case for the Union.

Of course, the attitude, the "vision" of unionism, unionists, loyalists and Ulster Protestants within nationalist Ireland very much depends on which end of the island that perception is taking place.

South of the border the overwhelming image of the Ulster Prod is one of bewilderment. The unionists of the north east of Ireland are in the main as unknown an entity as the Bosnian Serbs or the Algerian Berbers.

Outside of the caravan of north-south community relations groups and the political classes, "Middle Ireland", while not overtly hostile to the unionist population, has little understanding of/or social interaction with them.

Herein, then, lies a paradox, because "Middle Ireland's" indifference to matters north of the border has played an important part in the social shift within the Republic away from reclaim-the-Fourth-Green-Field nationalism to support for a political settlement, which in the short to medium term accepts partition.

There is a minority (dwindling?) in the south who maintain an historic hostility to those they regard, at its most benign, as "misguided Irishmen and women". Yet most people in the Republic take the attitude that, as long as it is peaceful, settled and stable, the north and its people can continue taking the high road while the south takes the low road. Partition in mind as well as geopolitical reality.

The media uses televisual shorthand to explain a complex story in an increasingly short period of time. Images of young men in hoodies using flagpoles with Union flags on them, bashing police Land-Rovers amid pentecostal-like flames from smashed Molotov cocktails, make for great TV pictures. Sour-faced, angry men, some of them in bowler hats, scowling into the camera and the microphone, make for great sectarian soundbites.

This selective cast-list, this guaranteed "picture-rich" backcloth, reminds you of the way the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often played out for Western viewers. The cast-list here are normally dispossessed Palestinians and wild-eyed bearded Jewish settlers, more often than not with Brooklyn accents.

We rarely see the clubbers and the surfers of Tel Aviv, just as we hardly ever see the aspects of normal life that also go on across the Green Line in Palestine. Complexity is the enemy of all fundamentalist thinking, whether that be Islamism, the ultra-nationalism of the Jewish settler groups, the Taigs-Burn-in-Hell evangelicalism of the far-Right loyalist fringe, or the nihilistic addiction to republican armed struggle.

Perhaps that is why a small but bewildered minority just didn't "get" a gesticulating, marionette of anarchy and energy from east Belfast who had come down to Co Clare with tales of drug-taking, all-night drinking, financial chaos, daydream record business projects as well as a decent, utopian ideal.

Here was someone who confounded all the usual stereotypes held even within sections of moderate, conservative Middle Ireland about northern Protestants - yet who was still "lost in translation" south of the border.

One of the most important novels to come out of Northern Ireland in this decade gives a more rounded, kaleidoscopic vision of the Protestant community.

David Park's The Light of Amsterdam involves three sets of characters from loyalist east Belfast: a single mother struggling financially who reluctantly joins her daughter's hen party to the Dutch city; a middle-aged, well-off couple taking a break in Holland from their garden centre business; and a divorced, lonely father accompanying his teenage son there for a weekend holiday he hopes will reconnect a bond between them.

The centre-piece event that starts the novel off is the funeral of George Best and the main character's melancholic sense of loss, the university art teacher sensing in the soccer star's death his own ultimate decline.

There are sparse references to the Troubles and sectarian division. Park's book instead deals with the aftermath of divorce, isolation, frustration, the desire to break free, all existential, universal themes. Yet Park succeeds in bringing to life a section of the Northern Irish population rarely seen in novels, films, plays or documentaries. The main cast are essentially decent, but flawed human beings who are not driven by a 24/7 sectarian raison d'etre, or an impending sense of political doom. They have more important things to worry about.

Perhaps it is no accident that Parks created Marion and Richard, who are relatively well-heeled living in the leafier suburban end of east Belfast and own a garden centre business.

Back in 1998, when a progressive section of unionism was trying to persuade a sceptical unionist electorate to back the Good Friday Agreement, Paul Bew, Professor of Politics at Queen's University and renowned Irish historian, coined the phrase, "the Prod in the garden centre". Professor Bew noted the indifference an important section of the Protestant middle class - moderate and relatively liberal - had towards the feral politics of Ulster.

Those interested in establishing real reconciliation in the Republic and a proper understanding of those "alien beings" that sometimes fall to southern earth should be arguing for a shift in southern perceptions. The place to start this is in southern schools and colleges.

The works that need to be studied ought to include the likes of The Light of Amsterdam; to allow authors, playwrights, filmmakers, musicians and even anarchist-hippy-punk dreamers like Hooley to shine light themselves into a community where for too long (especially for those of us who grew up in nationalist and republican backgrounds) there were only the shadows of stereotype and gross generalisations.

This is an edited version of Henry McDonald's essay, Investigating the Protestant 'Kaleidoscope', in The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants (eds Thomas P Burgess and Gareth Mulvenna) published by Palgrave Macmillan

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