Belfast Telegraph

Nelson McCausland: History of Scotch-Irish in US shows unionists have nothing to fear from equality

BBC show highlighted role of Ulster-Scots in bringing progressive ideas to America, writes Nelson McCausland

Former US President Andrew Jackson
Former US President Andrew Jackson
Senator James Webb

We the People ... that is the opening phrase of the preamble to the United States constitution. It is also the title of a recent BBC television programme exploring and explaining the influence of the Scotch-Irish in the making of modern America. The programme was supported by the Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund (USBF) and, in truth, without the support of that fund it would probably not have been made.

It was therefore a reminder of the importance of the USBF, which has supported the production of some really good television programmes.

Having negotiated the creation of the USBF in 2010 during the Hillsborough Castle talks, I continue to take a particular interest in it as a member of the USBF committee. An Irish Language Broadcast Fund had been operational since 2005 and the development of a parallel Ulster-Scots fund was a small step towards cultural equity.

The contributors to the programme were significant and included several academic historians, former Senator James Webb, a Democratic Party strategist, and Frances Stead Sellers, senior writer at the Washington Post.

There was perhaps an over-reliance on the perspective of Sellers, which may have given some viewers the impression that all the Scotch-Irish in America were supporters of Donald Trump.

That is certainly not the case, and indeed another contributor commented on the diversity of the Scotch-Irish.

However, there were important lessons to be learned from the programme and the story that it sought to tell.

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David ‘Mudcat’ Saunders, a colourful political strategist for the Democratic Party, said: “Democrats go after class, Republicans go after culture, and culture wins every time.”

I’m not sure about the “Democratic-Republican” part of that statement but the second part is right, “culture wins every time”.

It is a point that is often acknowledged in America as “culture is upstream from politics”.

Moreover, it can be understood as referring to cultural worldviews or to cultural traditions, but it has a very immediate relevance to the current political situation in Ulster.

Sinn Fein has certainly grasped the truth that “culture is upstream from politics” and anyone who negotiates with it needs to understand thoroughly both the culture and the argument.

A second lesson is that the Scotch-Irish in America took with them from their Ulster-Scots roots a sense of justice, freedom and equality.

Webb, author of Born Fighting, said: “If you look at what the Scotch-Irish did, you see it most importantly in the form of government that Andrew Jackson and people who succeeded him in office brought — what we call frontier democracy, which actually came right out of the Scottish kirk.”

Unionists must start to reclaim issues such as equality and rights, which have for too long been hijacked by Irish nationalists and the Left.

The truth is that the forefathers of today’s Ulster-Scots were to the fore in advancing these concepts.

It was certainly good to hear historians speak unashamedly and unequivocally about the Scotch-Irish and the Ulster-Scots.

Warren R Hofstra, Professor of History at Shenandoah University in Virginia, was especially warm in his reflections.

Our local universities have a long way to go in accepting and embracing Ulster-Scots culture, heritage, language and identity in a similar manner.

Those who emigrated from Ulster had a profound influence on the making of America, and as one contributor said: “Their cultural footprint is enormous.”

This year is the 300th anniversary of 1718, the year when a trickle of Ulster-Scots emigration became a flood as a result of religious discrimination and economic hardship.

The narrator said of the Scotch-Irish that they can “trace their roots to Ulster and the people we call the Ulster-Scots”.

When you have a statue of Andrew Jackson outside the White House and a portrait of Andrew Jackson on the wall of the Oval Office, then surely we can do more here in Ulster, and especially around Carrickfergus, to highlight Jackson’s Ulster roots.

The very least should be a statue of Jackson in Carrickfergus.

In the meantime, what about a large American flag flying at the Jackson Centre at Boneybefore for all those American tourists to see as their cruise ships come sailing up the lough?

It would a good way to mark that 300th anniversary.

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