Belfast Telegraph

The Ulster Protestant boasts so many more shades than simply red, white and blue

A persistent failure by republicans here to understand Northern Ireland Protestants is rooted in the false assumption that they are all the same. In fact, apart from a shared sense of Britishness, it is hard to say what unites them at all, writes Malachi O'Doherty.

A Northern Irish academic of some repute is caught up in a familiar and recurring conversation in Cork. It has started around someone noticing that he is an Ulster Protestant, whatever that means.

It can't be relied on as a description of his religious beliefs, if he has any, or as a precise predictor of what political party he would vote for if he had stayed at home, let alone which he would vote for in the south, where he has lived for 20 years.

The conversation is about the obstinacy of the Ulster Prod. Someone is saying that no artistic work of any merit can be expected of a community which - like Afrikaaners and the Nazis - defines itself by domination of others.

So what does the Prod in the company do? He is being discounted in his own presence as somebody whose opinions are not even worth listening to, anyway, so he doesn't offer one. Instead, he tells a story. It is his usual tactic when people discuss his cultural origins as if they are only toxic and despicable.

The story is that he played in a punk band. His name is Paul Burgess. He is from the Shankill Road in Belfast. He and his band were making radical songs critiquing Thatcherism and looking forward to a socialist revival in Britain. A famous - very famous - star of the time called him an "Orange b******".

His band was pulled from a US tour because the guys weren't regarded as being Irish enough, or the right kind of Irish. And the New Socialist magazine reviewed their music as "over-burdened by the weight of their own loyalist imagery".

You don't have to be a loyalist yourself to see that a guy is put at a horrible disadvantage when every argument about his roots, or position, is predicated on the understanding that he has nothing of value to say.

This is topical now, because Burgess and a fellow academic, Gareth Mulvenna, have just published a collection of essays, The Contested Identities Of Ulster Protestants. One of the essays is by the Belfast Telegraph contributor and Guardian journalist Henry McDonald.

Henry tells the story of a famous northerner addressing a festival gathering in Doolin, Co Clare. We all know the man who's talking. He's loud and garrulous and reflexively mischievous. He is not a bigot. Back when I first knew him in the early-1970s, I wrote a story about him being threatened by loyalists, who had used the cover name Freaks for Ulster.

Terri Hooley wasn't on their side. He wasn't on any side. He was and is, in the nicest colloquial term we have for it here, a balloon. He floats free and says the first thing that comes to his mind in any situation.

Henry says some of the audience in Doolin got that. The rest thought he was a dangerous sectarian chump.

And what that tells Henry and tells the rest of us is important. It is the same thing that Paul Burgess's story of the conversation in Cork exposes; that a lot of people in the Republic don't understand northern unionism and don't concede the possibility that any reasonable expression of it even exists.

This is a worry.

A chapter by Sunday Independent columnist Eoghan Harris attacks that blindness in his fellow country people, but reports progress over the years and sets out to map the milestones from the deepest, most intransigent refusal to believe that unionists were anything but deluded.

It was a journey towards a more compassionate and considered acceptance that they mean what they say when they describe themselves as British.

The traditional republican viewpoint, voiced many times by Gerry Adams, is that unionists are simply wrong when they claim a British identity and that when Britain dumps them they will quickly come to accept that they were Irish all along.

A lot of barbarous things have been done in the name of northern Protestantism, loyalism and unionism, but it is a fairly totalitarian response to discount the right of an identity to even exist.

And where the Good Friday Agreement formally recognised the right of northerners to be British, the experiences of Burgess and Hooley, and the claims of those who attacked them and of other republicans, show that many have yet to be persuaded of that, whatever the Agreement says.

My contribution to the book looks at the other side of the question; not why so many people are loth to credit unionism with a valid argument, but why so many northern Protestants, and loyalists in particular, make their own case so badly.

On many occasions over the past few years I have been asked to provide media skills training to groups of loyalists, or to talk to such groups about politics, history and culture. Some of the groups have been mostly UDA, some UVF and some have been mixed, also including members of Sinn Fein.

These sessions were mostly arranged through the media training company Channel 56, based in Donegall Pass, or by Expac, a Monaghan-based organisation set up by former republican prisoners. Sometimes I was invited just as an individual with no mediating group involved.

I have sat down with loyalists in the Newtownards Road, Carrickfergus, Donegall Road, Taughmonagh, the Shankill Road and Tigers Bay and perhaps a couple of other locations that have slipped my mind. One thing I discovered was a deep suspicion of the media - even a distrust of any verbal cleverness.

I have read the theories that Protestants expect words to be plain and to mean what they say, because they are raised on the book, the Bible. I also know the theory that they have no tradition of education, because they relied on industry for work.

I doubt both those theories, because they are too simple. My loyalist sparring partners never quoted the Bible at me and Belfast's heavy industries died out before most of them were born.

What bothered the loyalists was that they had been outflanked by republicans and they had a sense that this had been done with lies and charm. Their contempt for slick language was more to do with it having been used against them than with their theological tradition.

They had also been left behind by the huge number of unionists who had got a decent education, who had moved away, or just become middle-class, or joined political parties, or for whom identity wasn't something to worry about.

It doesn't take long to discover the biggest weakness in the prejudice that Paul Burgess and Terri Hooley were confronted with. It is an assumption that the Prods are all the same. They are so diverse, in fact, that it is questionable whether they are united in anything other than Britishness. Where we talk in shorthand about Catholics and Protestants, unionists and nationalists, the precise boundaries between these communities are utterly unidentifiable.

The republican bigot thinks that, from the bar at the Rangers supporters club to the Bar Library, there are sullen unionist Protestants nursing a grievance, a sense of having lost what they were never entitled to have.

They meet someone like Paul Burgess, or Terri Hooley, and think they are meeting a Prod and that it is that Prod who is the bigot.

There is a name for that; it is Catholic sectarianism.

  • The Contested Identities Of Ulster Protestants (eds Paul Burgess and Gareth Mulvenna) is published by Palgrave Macmillan

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