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New generation of unionist writers are fashioning cultural renaissance

Rosemary Jenkinson


Derry Girls may still garner the plaudits, but authors from the unionist tradition, like Jean Bleakney, Moyra Donaldson and Jan Carson, are exhibiting a new-found confidence, says Belfast playwright Rosemary Jenkinson

Rosemary Jenkinson

The political scene is transforming around us at huge pace, with Scottish, English and Irish fist-pumping nationalism on the rise, leaving Northern Irish Protestants feeling buffeted by external forces. It's true that Brexit put the border literally on the line, leading Leo Varadkar to duly respectabilise the notion of a united Ireland, but the Decade of the Centenaries has also given a renewed shot in the arm to overzealous peddlers of the past.

Admittedly, a lot of these votes for nationalism are a two-fingered rejection of the liberal elite and the policy of austerity in the UK and Ireland, but there are other forces at play. Multiculturalism has also provoked a backlash.

The Irish Government was looking socially progressive, with referendums legalising same-sex marriage and overturning the abortion ban, but they pushed people too far, too quickly with the RIC commemoration and should have "tread softly", as Yeats termed it.

For us in Northern Ireland, the one good thing about the Troubles was how it taught us to be sensitive about commemorations.

We understand the binary nature of history in this country; you can't fairly celebrate one strand without celebrating the other.

Most people agree that an imminent border poll would create a toxic atmosphere. We've already seen the infernal discontent arising from the whisker-thin win of Leave in the Brexit vote.

One of the positives from Brexit is that the English can now finally understand how it is to live in a politically divided country like us. Yet, it's still unlikely an impending border poll would result in a united Ireland.

Aside from economic issues like jobs, healthcare and extortionate rents and house prices, there is always that uncomfortable question among the Protestants who lived through the Troubles: how can you vote for something the IRA tried to physically force on you for 40 years? Only the new generation can entirely step aside from that memory.

Personally, I loved the 20 years of the peace process. Most of us were able to traverse both sides of the peace walls without fear. Of course, we didn't necessarily have the same political views, but by not engaging we transcended them.

Humour is an essential tool for crossing boundaries and deflating patriotic fervour. I was able to laugh with my nationalist friends about renaming Londonderry "Dublinderry", or the Ulster Fry being rebranded the "Occupied Six Counties Fry".

While I thought I was accepted by all my nationalist friends, I later found out a few of them hilariously called me "Protestant Rosemary". It was still progress.

Republican rhetoric may tell us we're living in "a failed state", but I don't agree. It's a dysfunctional state, certainly, but if this was truly "a failed state", Sinn Fein would never have gone back to Stormont, and it's in actions not in words that we discern the truth.

It's fascinating how many of the greatest architects and myth-makers of Irish nationalism were Protestant. W B Yeats's poem Easter, 1916 was incredibly influential in the founding of the Free State, but Yeats later fought against the Catholic ethos that outlawed divorce and warned the Irish Senate that "by Catholic ideas alone, you will never get the north".

Perhaps the DUP should take note of this as, by conservative Protestant values alone, they can't maintain Northern Ireland.

However, it was evident from the December election that some people who criticised the DUP's stance on gay marriage and abortion were using these issues as masks to disguise their own sectarianism.

It's interesting how Arlene Foster was generally well received on the Late Late Show and it's now more important than ever for all our politicians to be visible in the south, because the problem with mythology, republican or unionist, is that it dehumanises.

It's about one superhero, or one band of superheroes, against the world. It belongs to films, not real life.

Over the past years there has been some demonisation of Protestants, which makes us more silent and worried about speaking up in public.

The reason for the modern-day trope of "the apologetic Prod" is because we feel we're about to be derided for our opinions.

For instance, I know a loyalist who always goes to the parades, but lies to his Catholic work colleagues out of fear of censure and pretends he's going to Donegal for the Twelfth.

If you can't say openly what you're doing, or be open-minded about what others do, you can never feel equal.

If you take offence at another's culture, you're only revealing your own cultural lack of confidence.

The difficulty with being a unionist is that you're labelled a maintainer of the status quo and retrogressive, even if you want social change.

Within the arts sector, it's probably a career kiss of death to openly admit you prefer staying with the UK. Yet, in my experience, Protestant areas tend to be progressive, open and mixed, because we've had to be in order to accommodate the growing Catholic population.

The new apartments being built near me in east Belfast are going to house a 50/50 mix of residents, encapsulating values of equality and tolerance.

Northern Irish writing, and in particular Protestant writing, has been recently undergoing a cultural renaissance. There are many of us writers, like Jean Bleakney, Moyra Donaldson and Jan Carson, who are talking more about our backgrounds and identity.

Of course, the prevailing narrative still receives the greatest worldwide attention, as in Derry Girls and Anna Burns's Milkman, but we are starting to make a real mark. The Linda Ervine-led Irish language swell in east Belfast is part and parcel of this renewed self-assurance.

I am optimistic that we're not going to relapse into single views of history. Over the last few years, the fact that the southern Irish have honoured their First World War dead and, in Michael D Higgins's words, redressed the "official amnesia", has definitely brought them closer to us.

In Northern Ireland, our two main histories, narratives and perspectives need to co-exist. George Orwell, in 1984, satirically pointed out the sinister side of political thought control with the slogan "Who controls the past controls the future" and the danger for our own future is that one past is promoted over the other.

Right now unionists and nationalists need to be generous to each other. Brexit is on the horizon and Sinn Fein is now Ireland's second-largest party.

Life may be far from Yeats's "All changed, changed utterly", but things are changing fast around us and we all have to realise there is no need to tread on anyone's dreams.

Rosemary Jenkinson's play Dream, Sleep, Connect is produced by c21 and runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from February 18-22, followed by a Northern Ireland tour. See https://lyrictheatre.co.uk/event/dream-sleep-connect/ for more details

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