Belfast Telegraph

'There's a real dearth of leadership in unionism - they don't know how to argue for the Union properly'

Connal Parr, Belfast-born academic and grandson of one of the SDLP's founders, on what drew him to Protestant working-class culture, how the Republic isn't ready for a united Ireland, and why, to the English, we're all just 'Paddies'

By Lindy McDowell

Connal Parr, vice chancellor's research fellow in humanities at Northumbria University, is the author of Inventing The Myth, described as "a lively and timely work about the history and politics of Ulster Protestants".

Despite being a weighty academic tome - and at £55 an expensive one - the book has garnered enormous interest from the public and much acclaim from reviewers.

In it Parr, who studied modern history at the University of Oxford and obtained his PhD in Ulster Protestant politics and culture at Queen's University Belfast, considers unionism through the prism of drama and literature.

Not surprising, perhaps, for the son of playwright Anne Devlin and theatre director and television producer Chris Parr.

But Connal is also the grandson of a towering and respected figure in Irish nationalism, the late Paddy Devlin, who was one of the founders of the SDLP.

Here, he talks about class, identity and empathy for unionists. And why he believes unionist leaders fail to properly argue for the Union.

Q. You were born in Belfast, but where did you grow up?

A. I was brought up in Birmingham in the West Midlands. Anne, my mum, had met my dad Chris when she was the writer working with him on a drama called The Long March, which starred Jimmy Ellis and Doreen Hepburn. It also starred, for the first time, Adrian Dunbar and Ciaran Hinds, who is actually a distantly-related cousin of mine.

My dad was working for the BBC - he'd produced the Billy plays and several other acclaimed dramas. He worked with Graham Reid a lot.

Chris had got a job with Pebble Mill in the West Midlands, so my folks moved over with me and I grew up there. But we came back to Belfast often. I remember as a young child coming back to visit the family regularly (my grandfather and grandmother) Paddy and Theresa especially, and my aunts and uncles.

Q. Do you regard yourself as English then?

A. I have a very in between relationship - I always regard myself as both Irish and English, both nationalities.

I think I'm still dealing with that in the work I do about identity and politics. It kind of pre-empts the Good Friday Agreement - the idea that you can be both Irish and British.

I have both an Irish and a British passport and I actually had both the passports before the Agreement because my grandmother Theresa was born in Dublin.

Q. So, how did you become interested in writing about the Protestant/unionist side of the community?

A. What happened was that I did my undergraduate degree in Oxford in modern history and it was there that I followed through on my own Northern Irish history. I think it was there that I got the idea to work on the Ulster Protestant stuff.

It was because I felt that a lot of the books I was reading tended to be about the loyalist paramilitaries and Ian Paisley. While there were some good books in this, I didn't think it was enough. I didn't find it terribly revealing about the community.

If I'm honest with you, living in England I had - fairly conventionally - quite republican views. I saw things in a way that people on the British Left often do with the Irish situation. But the truth was I remembered a lot of stories and had heard these reports about loyalists, and part of me was not exactly frightened, but hostile to them.

So, part of it was me confronting my own blind spots and fear and prejudice to some degree.

I was thinking I'd better look into this and see if I can find what else is going on in this community. It was that sense of going on a bit of a voyage and discovering myself.

Q. Your book focuses on the work of dramatists and writers like St John Ervine, Thomas Carnduff, James Hewitt, Sam Thompson, Stewart Parker, Graham Reid, Ron Hutchinson, Marie Jones, Christina Reid and Gary Mitchell. But you also spoke to politicians, community workers and loyalists. Given your family background, how were your received by loyalists?

A. I did interview loyalists and the loyalists sort of liked Paddy because they remembered the Ulster Workers' Council strike of 1974 and him giving out the dole. Andy Tyrie and Glennie Barr both said; "Sure, come on up for an interview." I interviewed Barr in Derry and Tyrie in Dundonald and they both said: "Yeah, Paddy was a great guy." They had this kind of respect for him and that gave me access to them.

But to be honest, I also felt there's an emphasis on that - an emphasis on a certain image that comes up when we say "loyalist" and "Protestant". That image is the loyalist hard-man and bonfires and the border. But that's not reflective. I knew quite early on that wasn't reflective of the whole community.

So, I was looking towards the writers and cultural figures and people working in the community who seemed to me more reflective of the reality.

Q. Do you feel the politicians are failing in that respect?

A. I don't think the politicians are either reflective or effective themselves. In terms of the unionist politicians, I think there's a real dearth of leadership. When Paddy was at the forefront of his career there were good unionist politicians then, people who had ability and vision. You don't really get that in recent years, I find.

Q. What do you see as their primary failing?

A. I do think that unionists don't know how to argue for the Union properly. This is what strikes me. I'm culturally Irish. I couldn't not be because of my background and it's also what I'm interested in generally. But the Union has great benefits.

I wouldn't work anywhere else other than England, personally. My partner Kyra Hild is from Kerry. She grew up in a lovely remote part of Kerry. She's a lawyer and she works in Dublin.

But I do prefer working here. There are benefits in British society which unionists never argue. They never focus on the National Health Service.

They're never on those marches, such as the ones recently celebrating the 70th anniversary of the NHS. Unionist politicians couldn't care less. They don't know how to argue the fact that this is a very multicultural society, this is a very diverse society, it's very open.

Women have abortion rights here, which you don't have in Northern Ireland and were only recently acquired in the Republic. Unionists don't know how to argue all that. They grasp a concept of Britishness which is all about royalism, the Union Jack, the armed forces and they think that is what entirely represents Britishness.

I think that is unfortunate because people in England, they would regard that as a perception of Britishness that is really outdated and which doesn't really exist in any meaningful sense.

I say this as someone who has lived in Birmingham, London, Oxford, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, someone who's lived here nearly all my life. I do think it is unfortunate.

Q. So how do you think unionism is regarded from England?

A. Look at the hysterical reaction when the DUP agreed to prop up Theresa May's Government. I don't like the DUP. But that reaction was slightly mad and also, although it might sound like a funny thing to say, slightly anti-Irish. The venom was out of all proportion to what the DUP actually warrant.

But I think it comes down to what do the English regard unionists as?

They regard them as Paddies. I remember coming across a letter from John Hewitt when I was doing my book and he was saying that, initially, he was someone who would always say that he was a small 'u' unionist. He was writing to the Lyric Theatre's founder, Mary O'Malley, and he was saying something along the lines that: "I would have thumped anyone who called me Irish here. But we are all Irish here..."

That's how they regard us and you have to face up to that fact.

Q. Speaking of the Irish, what are your views on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his current approach to Brexit? Many in the unionist community believe the Irish Government views Brexit as a potential stepping-stone towards a united Ireland. Do you think that's the case?

A. No, not at all. I think that is just unionist paranoia. Personally speaking, I'm not a fan of Varadkar. I don't support Varadkar politically because he's quite an economically conservative man. He made that quote about how he wanted to lead the party for people who get up early in the morning. He's got this kind of Thatcherite analysis economically, despite being a social liberal.

That idea of him using Brexit to promote a united Ireland is really nonsensical.

I think the Irish Government are simply safeguarding their own interests.

They know that Brexit is not a thing of their own making and they also know that Ireland stands to be damaged economically by it very severely.

They are protected by the EU because they're a member of the EU, so they're obviously going to be coming from that negotiating position.

I have to say, not just as someone who regards himself as Irish, even if I was looking at it objectively I would be coming down more on the Irish Government's side than I would on the British side, because the British side is such a mess at the moment.

Theresa May agrees to the backstop solution and then Brexiteers in her Cabinet force her to back-pedal. And the Irish Government is thinking: "What the hell is this?"

I don't think the Irish Government is using it. I also think that the Irish people are not ready for a united Ireland. They know they can't deal with it economically, politically, socially.

I've spent a lot of time in the south and I always find this thing of: "We just never want that stuff coming here."

Q. Can you blame them?

A. I was in Galway last weekend because my dad had a film screening there and I went to see the I, Dolours documentary (about the late Dolours Price).

In it Ed Moloney is interviewing her (for the Boston College tapes) and it was interesting sitting in an Irish audience watching that.

I got that same sense, exactly what I've just told you.

Just them sitting in silence, watching this thing and thinking to themselves: "Please, never let this stuff come down to us."

And, as you say, who can blame them?

Q. Your own background growing up would have been fairly middle-class?

A. Yes, very. When I was investigating Paddy's life the difference between his life and mine was marked. He had a very working-class background. He was in the IRA initially, but generally he was a street politician, a trade unionist.

By contrast, I had a very privileged, middle-class upbringing. I was sent to nice schools in suburban parts of Birmingham and London. Yet, if I'm being honest, I'm more interested in working-class culture and history - labour history.

My book is about working-class writers. I think when you grow up in a middle-class environment, you react against the conformity of it. The reason why I was so interested in writers like Gary Mitchell, Graham Reid, Marie Jones, Sam Thompson and people like that in the book was that they were showing me a working-class life - a dynamic, vital, edgy kind of life that you don't get when you're from a soft, comfortable background.

Q. The Billy plays, which your father produced, had a resonance right across the divide. Do you think that was because most people here, on both sides, are, or come from, a working-class background?

A. Of course it is. Belfast is one of the great, old working-class cities. One of the things that I think links Belfast and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where I live now, is that they are very similar in that respect. Newcastle is like Belfast minus the sectarianism - it's kind of like home without the s****.

Like Belfast, it has the old working-class warmth and directness, the humour and, you know, sometimes an edge. People will tell you what they think of you very quickly; there's no beating about the bush.

The Billy plays were about the Protestant community, but they were accessible to all sides of the community in Northern Ireland, the Catholic community as well. I remember being told about a guy coming into my grandmother's house and he saw the framed picture on the wall from the Billy plays - this was a guy from the Falls Road. He said: "There's our Billy." It's great, isn't it? I think that was a very skilful thing Graham Reid achieved.

One of the great things about my dad - and I think that this may have been one of the reasons why my mum fell for him - was that he wanted to work with local writers, Belfast writers. He wasn't interested in doing drama written about the Troubles by someone in London because he knew it wasn't authentic.

What he did is he came in and he worked with a number of local writers.

He did the same as artistic director of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. My folks went back there for an event about five years ago and they said that Chris was treated like a hero there, because he was surrounded by all these Scottish writers who remembered him coming in and giving them work.

This is what my dad did in BBC Northern Ireland - he made sure that local people were employed in all aspects of the production and, most importantly, that the writers themselves would be Belfast writers.

Q. What do you think you've inherited from your grandfather Paddy?

A. I think sometimes how different I am temperamentally to Paddy - very different upbringings. But one of the things I share with him is that view of the Protestant community. I completely share his anti-sectarianism and his own respect and affection for the Protestant working-class community.

I realised when I was doing the book and the PhD that it was based on, that, really, it was my version of that. I felt that connects me to Paddy; that I have an empathy with them, with the Protestant perspective.

When something's Irish, it's seen as cool, edgy and fashionable. I think the Protestant community does get a hard time in the way that it's portrayed in England, America and elsewhere.

It's still seen as backward and reactionary.

The book was me trying to say there is also all this fascinating, Left-wing, progressive, artistic history. Look - it's all here.

There's great writers. Celebrate them. Remember how important their contribution has been.

Look at what they're showing, look at how talented they are. That's what drove a lot of it for me.

Q. Your book has been praised by reviewers and shortlisted for a number of prizes. So, when is it coming out in paperback? And will it be a bit cheaper?

A. I've been talking about this to Oxford University Press, who published it. The book's been very well reviewed and it's done very well for an academic book that's priced at £55.

There will be a decision, I think, around about January. However, it's looking good.

Inventing The Myth: Political Passions And The Ulster Protestant Imagination by Connal Parr is published by Oxford University Press, priced £55

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