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‘The people are 20 years ahead of the politicians’

Susan McKay conducted 100 interviews for the follow-up to her book Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People — with unpredictable results

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Changing times: Susan McKay

Changing times: Susan McKay

Changing times: Susan McKay

The new DUP leader, Edwin Poots, has been attempting to talk up the next 100 years of Northern Ireland, assuring us in traditional terms that “when unionism’s back is against the wall, history has proven that we will come out fighting”. However, the way feminist and former Progressive Unionist Party leader Dawn Purvis sees it, “we are at the beginning of the end now”.

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Dawn Purvis

Dawn Purvis

Dawn Purvis

She foresees Scotland getting its independence and the British Government seizing the opportunity to ditch “this squabble in the back yard” by consenting to a border poll in this country. “The DUP isn’t preparing people,” she told me. She said working-class communities have looked to the DUP for direction and leadership too many times without getting either. “Our history just repeats itself,” she said.

Purvis described how, in 2006, she was talking with DUP members in North Antrim and she told them that, in her view, the-then DUP leader, Rev Ian Paisley, was going to do a deal with Sinn Fein. “And they said, ‘No, he’ll not, no, he’ll not. The Doc won’t sell us out.’”

Soon afterwards, the St Andrews Agreement saw Paisley enter Stormont in partnership with Martin McGuinness. In no time at all, they were appearing together, the First and Deputy First Ministers, guffawing on an Ikea sofa — the Chuckle Brothers.

“If we have Scotland for the Scottish, England for the English, Wales for the Welsh, that leaves the last remnants of the Brits in Northern Ireland,” she said. (The Welsh First Minister recently also predicted the break-up of the United Kingdom.) “Northern Ireland for the British. What does it mean? What does it mean when that happens for people who hold on to this notion of identity that they can’t explain, but it’s something that they hold on to, like somebody’s trying to steal it from them? The DUP is not having those conversations.”

Except, it would seem, with the previously unheard of Loyalist Communities Council, which is suddenly being presented as if it is the voice of the working-class people. This unelected committee of older, white men has now been consulted by, among others, the outgoing First Minister and Lord Nigel Dodds, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Secretary of State, the Republic’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Lord Frost. Why? Because it includes representatives of loyalist paramilitary groups.

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A couple of weeks ago, it sent out a 19-year-old youth, who had only joined it a matter of days beforehand, to tell the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster, which is looking into the impacts of the Brexit Protocol, that such was the anger that he could not rule out people resorting to violence.

Twenty-two years ago, when I was writing Northern Protestants — An Unsettled People, the late Billy Mitchell, a former UVF man who supported the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, told me that, while he took responsibility for his own choices in life, it was Paisley who had fired him up to decide to become a paramilitary. The loyalist ceasefire meant that “we’ve sheathed the sabre — they can’t rattle it anymore”.

My new book, Northern Protestants — On Shifting Ground, includes interviews with Chrissy Quinn and her partner, Davy Joyce. Three of Chrissy’s children, Richard (11), Mark (9) and Jason (8), were burned to death that year when loyalist paramilitaries supporting the Orange Order’s protest at Drumcree petrol-bombed their home in Ballymoney.

Davy Joyce is Jason’s father and a Protestant. Chrissy is the daughter of a mixed marriage. She told me that her only surviving son, Lee, who was 13 at the time, has not been able to get over the murders of his little brothers and nor has she. “I just get through the days,” she said. This is the reality of loyalist violence.

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Kyle Black

Kyle Black

Kyle Black

Overwhelmingly, the people I interviewed for my book were relieved that the violence has, by and large, stopped, though DUP councillor Kyle Black talked to me about the murder by dissident republicans of his father, prison officer David Black, in 2012.

He described how hurtful it was to see his father’s name on placards that are burned in republican bonfires and to see IRA graffiti at the roadside where the ambush took place. He explained that he had decided in the aftermath of the murder to get involved in politics to help transform Northern Ireland into a more inclusive and tolerant society.

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Margaret Veitch and her sister Joan, whose parents William and Agnes Mullan were killed in the Enniskillen bombing

Margaret Veitch and her sister Joan, whose parents William and Agnes Mullan were killed in the Enniskillen bombing

Margaret Veitch and her sister Joan, whose parents William and Agnes Mullan were killed in the Enniskillen bombing

I also spoke with Margaret Veitch and Joan Anderson in Enniskillen. They are angry and despairing. Their parents, Billy and Nessie Mullan, were murdered in the IRA’s Remembrance Day bombing in their home town in 1987. No one had been convicted for the sectarian atrocity and the sisters felt the victims and their families had been forgotten.

“The British Government has done nothing for us British citizens that lived in hell for 35 years,” Margaret said. “It was a slaughter match around Fermanagh and right around the border.” The legacy issue is very far from having been resolved and it is hard to see how societal reconciliation can take hold in the sorrowful vacuum this creates.

Sarah Laverty (28), a policy and public affairs consultant and Green Party activist, who grew up in Ballymoney, said her generation sometimes felt dragged back by the undertow of the past. She was influenced by the feminism of her mother and the environmentalism of her father. Although she was pro-Union, she was one of many people I met who could not accept the social conservatism of mainstream political unionism.

Brexit had also made her question her identity. “The majority in NI voted to remain in the EU and yet we had to leave,” she said. “It made me feel insignificant, disenfranchised and disempowered and it made me start to question whether I was a valued part of this United Kingdom. And, really, I had to answer no.”

Brexit, unsurprisingly, came up a lot in the interviews. Haulage contractor, truck driver and chairperson of the Freight Transport Association, Pamela Dennison, was pro-Brexit, but felt the DUP had made a terrible error in rejecting Theresa May’s “unfettered access” deal in 2017. “We could have been Monaco,” she said.

She rejected the idea that what was now needed was the DUP’s “ditch the protocol” strategy. “That would make things 10 times worse,” she said. “It would quadruple the cost of duties and it would plunge us back into uncertainty, which is the opposite of what business needs.”

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Stacey Gregg

Stacey Gregg

Stacey Gregg

Stacey Gregg is an iconoclastic young playwright from Belfast, who has won some of theatre’s top awards for works that tackle issues like slut shaming, abortion and breaking away from binary notions of gender.

“My creativity emerged from the cognitive dissonance of growing up queer in a milieu that found me unpalatable and odd,” she said. She has returned to north Down with her English wife and child to make films and live by the sea. “Digital natives have access to ideas that go far beyond those imparted by the traditional cultural sources that informed their parents’ imaginations,” she observed. “There is a fluidity to their sense of persona and identity.” She likes the sense that Northern Ireland “has unclenched somewhat”.

Seventeen year old Rebecca Crockett, who lives on the border between Derry and Donegal, was one of many who were engaged in global movements. “The climate movement is definitely the most important one for me, because it’s an issue of now or never. If we don’t do something, that’s it, there’s nothing we can do if there is no planet,” she said. Rebecca, who went to an integrated school her father had helped to set up, said she had no idea if her friends were Catholic or Protestant or any other religion. It just did not arise among them. Rebecca’s father, the well-respected local farmer David Crockett, who is also included in the book, died in a tragic accident in 2020.

Many people talked to me about the need for change in how we regard politics in Northern Ireland. Some living and working in communities in which people are struggling to make ends meet talked of how poverty and educational disadvantage and the deepening crisis in the health service need to be given urgent attention. There was frustration about the obsessive focus on constitutional issues.

The idea of change is central to Northern Protestants — On Shifting Ground. The book’s cover is from a photograph by Trevor McBride of the effigy of Lundy that is burned in Derry each December.

Robert Lundy was the city’s governor during the 1689 siege and felt that a siege would inflict unbearable hardship on the people and that surrender should be negotiated with the Jacobite forces. He was banished, his name still used as a warning to those deemed to be traitors to the Protestant people.

Many of the people I interviewed believed that unionism has been badly served by its defensiveness, its rejection of change in favour of staunchness, its habit of shouting “no surrender” instead of seeking compromise.

In Derry today, hard work over many years has gone into ensuring that the Apprentice Boys and the nationalist majority community no longer clash over the Siege of Derry commemorations. Kenny McFarland, who is the chairperson of the Londonderry Bands Forum, talked to me about how cultural collaboration had transformed the city. “The people are 20 years ahead of the politicians,” he said. “We want normal politics.”

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Derry bandsman Kenny McFarland

Derry bandsman Kenny McFarland

Derry bandsman Kenny McFarland

** Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground by Susan McKay is published by Blackstaff Press, priced £16.99. An updated edition of Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People, with a new introduction, is published by Blackstaff on June 21, priced £16.99


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