Challenges for Protestants in “Dealing with the Past”

The second session at the all day PSA/Fellowship of Messines workshop – Has the Protestant Working Class lost out in the Peace Process? – looked back at some of the events and experiences that shaped loyalism. It didn’t particularly address “dealing with the past” in terms of societal remembering, truth commissions etc. (Yesterday’s post documented the first session which covered the history, culture and politics of the Protestant working class – it’s good to see that it attracted an on the whole reasoned set of comments and discussion.)

Dr Graham Spencer from the University of Portsmouth spoke first. [listen/MP3]

Recently while reading Dervla Murphy’s A Place Apart published in 1978 I was struck by the following comment:

“What most surprised me was the number of Catholics who admitted that in a changed atmosphere which did not make them feel inferior they would willingly forget about a United Ireland and be faithful to a power sharing Stormont substitute if it did not insist on ritual affirmations of loyalty to the Crown.”

For those Catholics – Murphy observed in 1978 – the intense issue was job discrimination. Now fast forward to June 2012 and a survey around the border poll where the Belfast Telegraph found that only 7% of Catholics would vote to have the border removed now and 48% might offer it in twenty years time. Here – said the [Belfast] Telegraph – broad equality in employment, housing and power sharing at Stormont proved decisive factors in this result.

He also referenced the BBC NI Spotlight poll, before going on to talk about fear.

What these figures also point towards is what Murphy thought in 1978, that the issue is not really a United Ireland for Catholics but equality and ending discrimination in Northern Ireland. What the figures intimate too is the prospect of national change is a much bigger concern for Protestants than Catholics … This ongoing and unchanging anxiety from unionism about the prospect of a united Ireland as that very prospect disappears over the horizon suggests one of two things. Either unionism is an irrational phenomenon or more likely, fear is the core of the locus of unionist identity and the basis of its world view. Fear is the emotive hold for unionism on our perceived identity in how it relates to change. And since the future is about change this is hardly an encouraging picture for a [unclear] unionism playing a constructive role in how the future develops.

If fear is the focal point of the identity, how does it work? First, it’s the main emotive linkage to political representation. As we can see, unionism continues to fragment following in the footsteps of its religious tradition where one went and formed another church if those available seemed to lack purity or offer the expected level of defence against this external threat of Catholicism. Look at how unionism has responded in the wake of the flags dispute to see this in action. It blames itself and splinters in its perceived weakness to cope with what is seen as a step towards dissolution of failure. Such fear of course is directed inwards.

The main threat to unionism being unionism itself and its inability to maintain or protect what it holds. Integral to this precariousness is an inherent lack of confidence and the constant threat of loss. In fact it is a pertinent question whether it is the fear of loss or the loss of fear which preoccupies unionism most.

This is an analysis that the DUP, UUP and the TUV should be considering, as well as new groups like Team Jasil.

PSA working class loyalism  workshop

Rev Chris Hudson is the Unitarian minister of All Souls Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church on Belfast’s Elmwood Avenue, a former Dublin trade union worker and mediator between the Irish Government and the UVF in the run up to their 1994 ceasefire. [listen/MP3]

Chris Hudson talked about the circumstances that led to the various paramilitary ceasefires in 1994 and gave reasons why a united Ireland was not likely.

Why then is there an insecurity within unionism and loyalism? … There is no threat from the Republic and no threat from any political party within the Republic. So why have you this insecurity?

He quoted the results of a flags issue survey in the Republic of Ireland:

45% of people in the Republic of Ireland felt the Union flag should be left alone, [that] it should not have been taken down on City Hall. 35% of people said it should have been left up for designated days. And only 15% of people in the Republic in an opinion poll said that the Union flag should not fly over Northern Ireland at all.

Indeed, one taxi driver in Dublin said to me when asking me what the problem was about the flying of the flag in the North, I told him it was taken down off City Hall and loyalists and unionists are up in arms about it. And he said to me: “Well, why don’t they bring it down here, put it over the GPO and if Scotland leaves the United Kingdom that means there’s a vacancy and we could slip in there”. (laughs around the room)

Chris Hudson said that he viewed the recent UVF centenary rally in East Belfast as “a working class manifestation” with around 10,000 people involved. He compared this with an Austerity march which had 1,000 people and the May Day march which involved 500-700 “most of them from noted left wing groups” and “sadly not enough trade union banners and not enough people from trade unions”.

We ask ourselves the question when we keep talking about “Protestant working class”: why do they vote unionist? Who else would they vote for? There is no coherent voice on the left for them to vote for. So the logical thing is they vote for the party that they believe at least to some extent represents their interest. Which is the Democratic Unionist Party.

I always remember in the South, teachers never voted for the Labour Party. They voted Fianna Fáil because Fianna Fáil looked after teachers than any other party. So I finish up by saying that we sometimes have to be careful about making assumptions of how people see their interest. And probably how they see their interest as working class people. Because to its large extent there isn’t a homogeneous working class in my opinion … People vote according to their interest …

For me, Chris Hudson’s presence at the workshop made all the more stark the absence of representatives from the main Protestant denominations, many of whose clerics and church members individually made positive grassroot contributions during the Troubles. Yet questions remain about whether denominations showed strong enough corporate leadership and went the extra mile to fight for the rights of those outside their church stone walls and with different political motivations.

The other obvious absence from the workshop was the voice of women. Of the forty people present, only two were women. Both made strong contributions from the point of view of academia and community capacity building. Billy Hutchinson referred in his recent interview to his party’s Women’s Commission. But surely it is time to include other female voices at the top table of discussions?

Across wider loyalism, where are the voices of those who gave up so much while husbands, partners, fathers, brothers and sons were in prison or on the run? For me, Bill Rolston’s book Children of the Revolution (reviewed back in September 2011) was a real reminder about the pain and suffering experienced by the extended family of combatants. Yet their voices are still muted and missing from talks about the future.

The next instalment examines the third sessionThe PUL Community and the Peace Process – an Audit – with contributions from Billy Hutchinson, Jackie McDonald and workshop organiser Aaron Edwards.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.