Belfast Telegraph

Hail glorious St Patrick – Protestants and unionists slowly embracing Ireland's national saint

By Ivan Little

The cynic might think there's more chance of finding St Patrick's Day celebrations in Shangai than on the Shankill and that Bali will see more wearing of the green than Ballymena.

But, while Protestants here have hardly been the biggest fans of Ireland's patron saint, who they say has been hijacked by republicans, several hundred Orangemen will still be on the march over the weekend on the Shankill and in Ballymena to commemorate St Patrick.

It'll be a drop in the ocean admittedly among an estimated six million people around the world who'll be drowning their shamrocks over a weekend when only a minority of Ulster Protestants will raise a glass to Patrick on what's seen by some as the Catholic answer to the Twelfth of July.

But things are changing. Slowly. And in the past decade a growing number of unionists have started to embrace the saint they once accused Sinn Fein of politicising for their own ends. Especially in Belfast.

For several years in a row there was controversy as nationalists and republicans attending a St Patrick's Day concert and parade in the city centre waved Tricolours in a sea of green which was like a red rag to those of an Orange hue.

Belfast City Council responded by trying to neutralise the carnival – which this year runs for four days – by banning all flags and emblems in a move which encouraged Protestant community groups to join in the festivities.

But the fear this year is that tomorrow's St Patrick's Day pageant could raise tensions if large numbers of Tricolours are used as tools of triumphalism in the city centre where the restrictions on the flying of the Union flag at the City Hall have sparked weeks of often violent protests.

One leading loyalist is pessimistic: "I think relationships have taken a few steps back because the flag and symbols are again to the forefront of our differences. The worry is that the Tricolour may become an issue once more on St Patrick's Day at the City Hall where the Union flag has been the focus of attention for months."

Police are also aware that loyalist flag protesters have been threatening to demonstrate at the City Hall tomorrow which could be a major security nightmare on a day that is supposed to promote harmony and understanding.

The irony of course is that St Patrick – and more specifically his Cross – is part of the Union flag, "so every time we fly the flag we are elevating and lifting up St Patrick," says the loyalist source, reinforcing the conclusion the two sides here have been engaged in a power struggle for ownership of St Patrick.

Sinn Fein Councillor Mairtin O Muilleoir says he believes Belfast's St Patrick's Day is becoming more of a cross-community event. "I don't want to exaggerate it and we're not there yet but it's a testament to this city that there is more of a shared occasion around St Patrick," he said.

Only one politician from the Unionist community has been ever-present at the St Patrick's celebrations in Belfast.

Dr John Kyle, a former chairman of the Progressive Unionist Party has been criticised in some loyalist quarters for his participation especially in the days before flags were outlawed but he has no regrets and will be in the parade tomorrow.

"I am happy to celebrate St Patrick because he's a man to be admired and respected. In terms of the Christian faith I believe Protestants and Catholics owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

"He came to a country and changed it for good and he doesn't belong to either tradition."

Dr Kyle finds the reluctance to take part in the Paddy parties by some Unionist parties hypocritical. "Why is it ok for them to go to St Patrick's Day celebrations in Washington and not to one in Belfast?

"I think unionism undersells itself in terms of its heritage and it needs to stop vacating shared space. We have instead to celebrate our shared history. St Patrick is just as much part of the unionist heritage as the nationalist heritage."

One Ulster Scots organisation – the Ullans Academy – which includes churchmen, politicians and former paramilitaries in its ranks – is trying to bring St Patrick back into the unionist fold.

Each year the academy holds a St Patrick's Day breakfast to which they invite Protestants and Catholics to explore their common bonds with the patron saint.

The former DUP leader Dr Ian Paisley, who regularly attends the breakfast, used the occasion six years ago to call for St Patrick's Day to be declared a public holiday in Northern Ireland.

Wearing a sprig of shamrock, he told me how he admired the saint and preached and wrote about him on a regular basis, describing him as one of the greatest evangelists of all time.

Even at the height of Protestant hostility towards St Patrick his spirit was kept alive, ironically, by the Army.

Its local regiments all received shamrock every March 17, usually from members of the Royal Family under the watchful eyes of a veritable battalion of Northern Irish journalists specially flown in for the event by the Army.

Yet, when the soldiers went back to civvy street, the shamrock and the saint went to the back of their minds.

DUP Assemblyman Sammy Douglas who has hosted the Ullans breakfast in Belfast City Hall says: "I remember the excitement of going to St Patrick's Barracks in Ballymena to see the presentation of shamrocks to my brother and his colleagues in the Royal Irish Rifles."

But that was all there was to the MLA's engagement with the St Patrick's celebrations when he was growing up.

Douglas says Protestant antipathy towards St Patrick is dissipating as they re-claim him as one of their own "after years of seeing Catholics flaunting him as a republican and nationalist icon".

"It's still politicised in many ways. But I do believe things are different now, though it's probably going too far to say Protestants would find it easy to go along to the Belfast celebrations."

Ex-UDA leader Andy Tyrie (left) has been pioneering an initiative to try to correct the misconceptions of the past and as part of it, former PUP leader David Ervine's brother Brian gave talks this month in both east and west Belfast about St Patrick.

He says: "The idea is to explode the myths and legends and I told the two audiences that St Patrick is a candidate for a shared history between our two communities when he is stripped away of his republican appendages and depoliticised, making him acceptable to everyone here."

Ervine, whose wife is promoting the Irish language in east Belfast, is convinced that Protestants will want to learn more about St Patrick if the politics are stripped away. "There's nothing to fear from him or the language," he says.

The Orange Order, however, isn't fully on board the St Patrick bandwagon yet. Its chaplain the Rev Mervyn Gibson says: "I am happy to embrace St Patrick's heritage but not in the narrow nationalist way it has been done recently.

"He has definitely been hijacked but I do think that attitudes have altered over the last 10 years as Protestants try to maybe not to re-claim St Patrick but rather to share him.

"Certainly there's not the same hostility as there was but many Protestants don't buy into the green rivers and the New York parades but it is relevant with the present situation that the cross on the Union flag is the cross of St Patrick."

Just like Protestant churches, a number of Orange lodges take their name from St Patrick. The Cross of St Patrick LOL 688 says its aim is to promote his Christian message.

Five years ago they were approached informally by a councillor to see if they would take part in the St Patrick's Day celebrations in Downpatrick where the saint is said to be buried.

But the idea was a non-starter because the Orangemen were told not to wear their collarettes or carry their banner.

Several years earlier the Orange Order pulled out of a parade in Cork claiming the safety of the small delegation of members who were scheduled to participate couldn't be guaranteed. The order blamed Sinn Fein for hyping up the situation with statements that the Orangemen's presence would be offensive.

Like many Protestants, Mervyn Gibson says that as a youth in Belfast St Patrick wasn't part of his life.

"For me St Patrick's Day was only about the Schools' Cup final and the only march was rugby fans heading up the Ravenhill Road."

However, the director of the St Patrick's Centre in Downpatrick believes more Protestants do want to know more about Ireland's patron saint.

Dr Tim Campbell says: "I work in the field and I know there has been a huge sea-change over the last five or six years of people from a unionist tradition who want to learn about St Patrick and to be more involved in his celebrations.

"They want to find a way of doing that because they don't necessarily want to be associated with a parade that has a lot of flags and bunting in it.

"They want to do it in a family friendly and safe environment. And we believe we have been successful in doing just that in Downpatrick away from all the politics where we can concentrate instead purely on a historical figure."

However, not even Downpatrick which normally attracts upwards of 30,000 people to its cross-community parade has been immune from division.

In 2011 seven primary schools pulled out and unionist politicians walked out after Sinn Fein councillor Eamonn Mac Con Midhe carried a Tricolour at the head of the St Patrick's Day parade.

He said he wasn't supporting Down District Council's 25-year policy of flying the red and white cross of St Patrick which he claimed 'had a military background'

However, Dr Campbell says it's business as usual now in Downpatrick and for the past two years a group called the Friends of St Patrick have held cross community dinners in honour of the patron saint with DUP politicians and Irish presidents attending them.

Tim Campbell says Downpatrick is a lesson for everyone. "We want people to understand that St Patrick was someone from Britain who became the patron saint of Ireland and can be celebrated by everybody.

"We are making inroads at making it all more inclusive. And there's more interest among young people in St Patrick than there has ever been.

"But he needs to be more central in the school curriculum particularly in primary schools. Pupils need to learn more about him as a reconciling figure."

Harder for some people to reconcile however may be the idea of a St Patrick's Day without drink.

Belfast City Council has endorsed the idea of Sober St Patrick's Day championed first in New York by businessman Bill Reilly, who is flying in from the Big Apple for the celebrations here on Sunday.

Council officials are hoping his idea of a drink-free day will catch on in Belfast especially among students.

That could be a tall order. Said one councillor: "It might be harder to banish the booze from the Holylands than it was for St Patrick to get rid of the snakes from Ireland." The spirit of

St Patrick was kept by the Army

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