A panel discussion around the topic of “Where is the Protestant Community Today?” followed a preview of the play Paisley & Me and two well-received performances/readings by community drama groups in Westbourne Presbyterian Community Church.
Noel Thompson strongly chaired proceedings, and started the dialogue by asking the panellists – Sammy Douglas (DUP MLA), Jackie McDonald (UPRG), John Kyle (PUP councillor) and Michael Copeland (UUP MLA) – about their first memories of Ian Paisley. In their own way, each of the contributors disagreed with Paisley’s approach.
The next conversation starter was: Why are the Protestant population whinging so much at the moment?
Michael Copeland pointed out that parading wasn’t a common issue raised with him in constituency business.
John Kyle pushed back on the assertion that bad guys had won. He said:
The bad guys lost. Institute at Stomont is up and active and doing some of the business. We’ve got peace on the streets with less bombs going off. We’ve got less crime than you’ll get in Manchester. We’ve got more community cohesion than you’ll get in London … I think the bad guys lost.
He also pushed back on media presentation of loyalist bands saying “the bands are treated as a bunch of criminal hoods [by the media]” despite giving the young folk structure and discipline.
Moving away parading, the panel touched on suicide, education and educational underachievement. Michael Copeland got applause from the packed church when he said “personally I wouldn’t have religion in schools”. One audience member noted the lack of politically actively women on the panel.
A strong voice boomed out from the pews lambasted the BBC’s “bias” against Protestant culture (at length) and then walked out immediately after another man asked why marchers from a temperance lodge urinated in his garden.
A local youth worker asked “Is devolution working for working class Protestants?” Sammy Douglas pointed to the investment into East Belfast – whether East Belfast Mission (or “the hanging gardens of Babylon” one woman heckled!), Templemore Avenue school, as well as the Orange Order engaging with a Catholic church.
Jackie McDonald said it was a difficult time for politicians, talked about sharing and pleaded for elected representatives to build better communities and not to automatically vote against proposals from opposing parties. Later he suggested:
Until we get the victims in the same room as the perpetrators the peace process won’t go forward.
A Shankill Road pastor reminded the panel about victims.
The panel finished by explaining what message of hope they each brought to the process.
Sammy Douglas: Warts and all, Stormont is working.
John Kyle: We’ve come through 30 years of civil war and managed to a very significant degree sorted out our differences. Terrific community infrastructure, brilliant people. If we get our early years strategy right to treat our children well, society will be great.
Michael Copeland Reality is that I’d be glad to get through the next months with the Welfare Reform Bill: 54,000 words, each one removing money from this economy. There are a lot of communities in Northern Ireland, but one people. When it rains we all get wet.
Jackie McDonald: Education needs to be a big part. Once kids leave school, education stops at the school gate. Parents don’t help with homeworks. We’ve come a long way from the Good Friday Agreement.