Ulster’s fracturing Protestant community faces difficult choices
History has truly been made in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill is now the First Minister of Northern Ireland: the first baptised Catholic to lead a statelet where anti-Catholic discrimination was long the norm, and the first Irish republican to lead a statelet which she and her party wish to incorporate into a 32-county United Ireland.
Irish reunification is unlikely in the short-term, but after years of direct rule from London, the resumption of power-sharing in the North has been widely welcomed.
Unionist opposition to the North being treated differently to Britain when it comes to trading arrangements with the European Union continues, but a critical mass of Ulster unionists have accepted the reality that this is not going to change substantively.
It must be acknowledged that the underlying issues that led to the collapse of power-sharing have not gone away.
For some, the Brexit referendum - in which 85% of Northern Ireland’s Catholics voted to remain in the EU, compared to just 38% of Protestants - was an effort to copper-fasten the partitioning of Ireland by establishing a hardened border between North and South.
The misjudgment by hardline unionists of their own influence and the UK’s bargaining power compared to that of the EU27 has led to a long defeat for an unsettled Protestant or unionist community now struggling to accept life as a minority within the jurisdiction their great-grandparents created in order to be a British Protestant fiefdom on Irish soil.
The lack of stability within this community should be a cause of concern to the people of both Britain and Ireland.
Two recently published books provide us with an insight into what has been happening.
More than 20 years after first examining “the people I uneasily call my own” in “Northern Protestants - An Unsettled People,” the Derry-born journalist Susan McKay released “Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground“ in 2021.
Once again, her book’s value rests on the diverse array of voices contained within it, people who represent all strains of opinion within the community whose members are called Protestant, unionist or loyalist, depending on their specific identities and circumstances.
In 2023, the unionist historian Aaron Edwards brought out his own book: “A People Under Siege: The Unionists of Northern Ireland, from Partition to Brexit and Beyond.”
Both books aim to tell a people’s story: a people whose representatives, it is fair to say, often struggle to articulate their cause effectively when communicating with the outside world.
Edwards differs significantly from McKay in his approach. His book is not journalistic but historical, and as he is clearly invested in his own community’s cause, he tends to focus too much on areas where he has a particular interest (like the militant loyalist minority) to the detriment of issues of greater relevance.
McKay, on the other hand, has long since relocated to the Republic of Ireland and writes about the community she grew up in with an affectionate yet critical eye, to the point that Edwards takes aim at her for being “dismissive” of unionists.
Of the two books, McKay’s is by some distance the more impressive: first-rate journalism from a first-rate journalist. Both contributions are of value, however, and taken together they paint a very accurate picture of a people plagued by unease.
For all of the controversy over Brexit in recent years and the obvious anger of unionists, violence has not returned to Northern Ireland.
Nobody who knows Irish history can be unfamiliar with the unionist predilection for complementing their political messages with subtle warnings about the possibility of bloodshed if their demands were not met.
More than a century ago, Ireland was divided into two parts largely due to the British government’s unwillingness to face down the threat of an armed uprising by Protestants in the country’s north-east.
Throughout the Troubles, unionist politicians who decried the IRA’s armed campaign to achieve a United Ireland often used potential action by loyalist paramilitary groups as part of their overall bargaining approach.
The Reverend Ian Paisley was a master of this tactic, and Edwards writes that the Presbyterian rabble-rouser “established a reputation for raising the spectre of armed resistance, even if he always avoided responsibility for its commission by rougher men.”
McKay describes a recent example of how this dynamic can still be seen when it comes to the imposition of border controls in the port town of Larne - the gateway to what unionists call the British mainland, and the fulcrum of an important trade route still governed by EU rules.
After alleged loyalist threats against customs workers appeared on local walls, the hardline Democratic Unionist Party Agriculture Minister withdrew staff from the facilities, which then led both the police force and trade unionists to publicly question the necessity of a course of action which delivered to unionists a temporary victory.
The savagery of loyalist paramilitaries in the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force during the Troubles is well-documented, as is the fact that such groups have continued to exist long after the Irish Republican Army disarmed and disbanded.
In 2020, it was estimated by the security forces that these groups had 12,500 members between them. For the moment, their activities are focused around drug-dealing and other forms of criminality, and their influence continues to blight the social prospects of young people living in low-income Protestant communities.
There is nothing new about militant unionists dabbling in organised crime. Edwards recounts that the legendary loyalist Gusty Spence, who carried out the first murders of the Troubles in 1966, had been the child of two criminals, and had himself been to jail before embarking on a terrorist career.
Though neither author dwells too heavily on more complex socio-economic problems, they also do not ignore them.
Education is a case-in-point. Protestant boys from lower-income families tend to fare poorly within the school system, and McKay cites Department of Education statistics showing that Catholics are now considerably more likely to continue into higher education.
The remarkable dominance of Catholic schools in Northern Ireland’s academic league tables is part of this story.
There is a cultural and political aspect to the educational divide too, as Catholic schools serve as incubators of a strong Irish national identity (centred around Gaelic games, the Irish language and other aspects of Irish culture) which continuously binds the Catholic/nationalist community together.
Recognising the realities of the current system, a growing number of unionist politicians have therefore begun to call for an end to religious (i.e., Catholic) education.
There is another aspect to the educational jigsaw which helps explain the problem: separation not based on religion, but Mammon.
As a longtime community activist and football club chairman tells McKay, Catholic schools - including the grammar schools which attract academically gifted youths - tend to be economically mixed with large numbers of students from less well-off families.
On the Protestant side of the peace wall, things are different with private prep schools attracting children of wealthier Protestants, who often subsequently depart to Britain for their university education, never to return.
Interestingly, the same community activist suggests that a difference in rates of social capital between the religious communities is also present.
“There is more cohesion among Catholics. Say we had flooding - in the Catholic districts of my constituency I would get the head of the tenants’ association coming to me and saying we tried to ring the Department of the Environment, but they’re overloaded and they can’t come out; we got sewer rods and lifted the drain ourselves but that didn’t work; we tried this and we tried that, and now we are trying you. In the Protestant area I would have got 60, 70, 80 calls, all from individuals basically saying, ‘What the f__k are you doing about this water?’” he laments.
In an environment where Catholics have overtaken Protestants in education, drawn level in the workforce and pulled ahead in raw numbers according to the Census, the installation of a Sinn Féin First Minister committed to unifying Ireland is yet another difficult pill for the previously dominant community to swallow.
Little wonder so, that McKay can write of a 2020 survey by the Department of Justice which found that Protestants located near peace line barriers were more concerned about those barriers being dismantled than Catholics, with 40% of Protestant respondents saying their community could disappear as a result.
The Census findings of 2022 were analysed by many simply on cultural grounds: “Catholic” being taken to mean “Irish nationalist” and viewed through the lens of a possible referendum on unity.
This is a mistake. The change which has been occurring within what we somewhat erroneously still call the “Protestant community” can best be understood on a religious level.
In her diverse range of conversations, McKay meets many people who hold socially liberal viewpoints like her own. Many of the interviewees were raised within a Protestant denomination but have now lapsed, whereas others were not raised as churchgoers at all.
In an increasingly secular society, what was once the great unifying institution of Ulster Protestantism, the Orange Order, now struggles to attract young men to join and participate in regular meetings.
The Twelfth of July - what Edwards calls “the closest thing to a holy day for loyalists” without appreciating the significance of his own words - is not on its own enough to unite a people who no longer share even a loose attachment to the same religious institutions.
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In fact, the most perceptive comment in either book comes from the novelist Phil Harrison, who spoke with McKay of how his own philosophical journey involved an initial embracing of the Protestant ethos in which the “central tenet is you have to stand on your own before God” which then evolved quite naturally into a Sartrean belief that we all had “to stand alone before the empty meaninglessness of the universe.”
It is not just the Protestant literati who have left religion behind them. McKay points out that the percentage of people from an Ulster Protestant background who reported having no religion almost doubled between 1998 and 2017.
Census 2022 confirmed this. What is more interesting though is that the collapse of religious self-identification is occurring rapidly in the Protestant community and barely at all among Ulster Catholics.
There are almost twice as many ex-Protestants as there are ex-Catholics in Northern Ireland (116,600 v. 64,600).
The logical consequences of Reformation theology are wreaking delayed havoc on a community which still defines itself in opposition to Rome and the cultural practices exhibited by Ulster’s Roman Catholics.
Yet without a shared religion of their own and the shared homestead which Catholics find in their parishes, without religious rites of passage and religious schools, post-Protestant Ulstermen are extremely vulnerable to the alienating effects of the modern world.
Those of a progressive bent often point to a future where the binary choice between nationalism and unionism is broadened and a new (and irreligious) third force presents itself as an alternative.
True enough, the Alliance Party has expanded its vote in recent times, and this socially liberal and Europhile party appears to be the most logical political alternative for those who seek a society where the markers of religion and nationality are less important, including in the education system.
However, a glance at the electoral map shows that Alliance’s appeal is still limited to overwhelmingly Protestant areas (with lapsed Protestants probably disproportionately represented within its ranks of voters).
They are yet to make a breakthrough across most parts of Northern Ireland, in large part due to the greater political and cultural coherence of the Catholic/nationalist population.
Moreover, McKay points out that the mixed Mid Ulster District Council area is noteworthy for not having an Alliance representative on it; it is quite possible that the presence of a perceived nationalist threat - in the form of a substantial Catholic population - tends to restrict free thinking and cause a closing of ranks within the unionist population.
So much of the historical self-understanding of Ulster Protestants is wrapped up in the 17th century. Many of them are, in their own minds and in the title chosen by Edwards, under siege.
It is hard to see a way forward that will satisfy those who cannot reconcile themselves to the bitter realities of sharing power in a divided society.
Surveying the religious and political strife in Ireland, Professor Oliver Rafferty SJ of Boston College previously identified the key difficulty as being the Irish Protestants’ “consistent demand for a controlling role in the country’s affairs far beyond their numerical strength.”
In their new position as a religious and cultural minority, Ulster’s Protestants will need to lay nostalgia for the past to one side and accept a new future in which not all political battles can be won, and where harsh rhetoric does not lead to success.
James Bradshaw writes from Ireland on topics including history, culture, film and literature.
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