Protestant and Dissenter: the nonsense of Sinn Fein’s outreach

Part of Sinn Fein’s pitch at the Ard Fheis was the idea of moving forwards “Towards a New Republic.” Alex Kane has pointed out what he calls the “Jekyl and Hyde” quality of Sinn Fein’s unionist outreach:

Adams talked, as did Martin McGuinness the night before, of the need to have a “national conversation on the future of the island” and to win unionists over. But then he adds a paragraph about the “British having no right to be here” and concludes with the words of ‘the blanket men and women, Tiocfaidh ar la”.

Sinn Fein seem to be interested in outreach only to an imagined cohort of persuadable unionists, which despite Rev. David Latimer’s speech is a largely illusory group: even Latimer still claims to be a unionist and to desire maintenance of the union. Indeed the strong suspicion is that either Sinn Fein do not know who these persuadable unionists are, or that they know they do not really exist and instead the whole idea of “unionist outreach” is there solely for internal republican consumption and as a stick with which to beat unionists.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the idiotic outdated language Sinn Fein insist on using. Adams’s use of the term “Tiocfaidh ar la” might be for the benefit of the activists but in the speech there was also “The new Republic must be built by Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter.”

The continued nonsense of pretending a difference between Protestant and Dissenter shows most likely a desire to reach out no further than the republican base brought up with a quasi religious belief that somehow the sectarian murderers of the IRA are the same as the United Irishmen. The alternative is that Sinn Fein and Adams actually believe there is a difference between Protestants and Dissenters which if true is laughable.

The IRA’s sectarian murder campaign seemed disinterested in which brand of non Catholic they murdered. It is extraordinarily doubtful whether the Enniskillen bombers were targeting one sort of non Catholic or the other. (they mainly managed to murder Dissenters as it happens) The Kingsmills murderers were very clearly lumping Protestants and Dissenters together for the purposes of sectarian slaughter.

The religious difference is unlikely to be clear to most republicans: do republicans understand the difference between Calvinist and Arminian theology? (most Protestants would probably struggle with it) Even if by chance they did, that does not dissociate Protestants from Dissenters. Republicans who might claim to understand the difference would probably claim Church of Ireland adherents as Protestants and Presbyterians as Dissenters. However, even that would be a simplistic nonsense. Where do they wish to place Methodists: as Dissenters? That might seem superficially correct but actually Methodists share Arminian Anglican theology to a great extent and indeed the denomination only split gradually from the CoE at the end of the eighteenth century. As such the United Irishmen might well have regarded the Methodists as Protestants not Dissenters.

The other small reformed denominations are also problematic as to being Protestant or Dissenter: indeed many simply self describe as Christian (not necessarily in an exclusive fashion). That said Republicans have not always worried too much about that: it is unclear whether the Darkley massacre was targeting Darkley Mission Hall as an example of sectarian murder of Protestants or sectarian murder of Dissenters. Equally when the IRA murdered Douglas Deering the last “Protestant” shopkeeper in Rosslea they probably cared little that he was Brethren and as such would have refused to be describe as anything other than a Christian.

Politically of course there is also no split between Protestants and Dissenters. Once when the UUP were dominant it was often regarded as the Presbyterian Church at prayer but equally many of its leading lights from Brookeborough to Molyneaux were CoI. The DUP may always have claimed more of the votes of the smaller evangelical denominations but equally some like the Brethren usually do not vote. Now the DUP probably take the majority of the votes of all the assorted denominations. I know of no one has looked at the denominational voting split recently within unionism probably because other factors are vastly more important. The liberals of parts of East Belfast voted last time in large numbers for Alliance but attempting to see a CoI versus Presbyterian or any other denominational split would be idiotic. Equally in most of the rest of the province reformed denomination would have much less relevance than personal political views, rural versus urban locality, socio economic status, family voting patterns, quality of candidate etc. Mr. Latimer might be seen as a persuadable Dissenter but Rev. Ivan Foster would also be a “Dissenter” and is somewhat more unlikely to be receptive to republican overtures.

The reality is that politically the differences within unionism have nothing to do with “Protestant” versus “Dissenter.” It is a small point but if republicans were actually interested in unionist outreach they might find more sensible ways of expressing their views of unionists. In their language, however, they betray yet again that harking back to their own myths and distortions is far more important than actually addressing any real unionists. Actually that is probably sensible for republicans since if they are unwilling to accept the sectarian nature of the IRA’s campaign there is little point in any form of unionist outreach. Much more fun to talk about unionist outreach and with the next breath celebrate assorted murderers or would be murderers of the past: then maybe have another rendition of Sean South of Garryowen: only three and a half months till they can all troop off to Moane’s Cross.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.