The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants, edited by Burgess and Mulvenna – Book Review

contested identitiesEdited academic collections are often technical and specialized – appealing to academics, but offering little to other readers interested in the topic. The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants (Palgrave 2015), edited by Thomas Paul Burgess (UCC) and Gareth Mulvenna (Queen’s) is an exception to this trend, as it draws in an eclectic range of contributors from academia and beyond.

(Unfortunately, the book carries an academic price tag – £68 – which places it beyond the ‘reasonable’ price range for most.)

Burgess, now a senior lecturer in UCC, is from the Shankill Road, previously worked on the Opsahl Commission, and was a member of the band Ruefrex. Mulvenna is a visiting fellow in Politics at Queen’s, where he is writing a book about Ulster’s loyalist ‘tartan’ gangs of the early 1970s.

Beyond the usual academic voices, the book features journalists (Eoghan Harris, Henry McDonald, Malachi O’Doherty), a political figure (Billy Hutchinson), retired Presbyterian minister (Rev Brian Kennaway), playwright (Graham Reid), and community worker (Neil Symington). What it lacks is women’s voices, with the female contributors confined to just one chapter: ‘Doing Their Bit: Gendering the Constitution of Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist Identities’ by Fidelma Ashe (Ulster University) and Caireen McCluskey (now called to the New York State Bar). (There also is a brief discussion of women’s contributions in James Greer’s chapter on ‘Typical Unionists.’)

Burgess and Mulvenna’s Introduction to the volume begins by citing the Haass Talks’ issues of flags, emblems, and the past, noting that (p. 1):

‘… the responsibility for the impasse that scuppered the Haass talks and brought violent protest onto the streets of Belfast seems to lie directly with the apparent intransigence of the so-called and supposedly monolithic Protestant-unionist-loyalist bloc, or ‘PUL community’, and its apparent inability to embrace these matters.’

Some of the chapters address these three issues, but taken as a whole the book encompasses a much wider range of concerns and perspectives, going some way towards illuminating the complexity of the PUL community.

It opens with the contributions of the three journalists, ranging from Harris’ changed southern perspective on unionism, McDonald’s analysis of stereotyped nationalist perceptions of the PUL community (both north and south), and O’Doherty’s chapter on ‘Loyalism and the Media,’ where he describes working with PUL groups in media workshops. This is a particularly interesting account where O’Doherty acknowledges the groups’ distrust of the media (which they see as out to get them), which leads to suspicion and a lack of constructive engagement. Although O’Doherty shares some of the strategies PUL groups could use to engage, he concludes with a rather bleak example (p. 38):

‘[One group member] thinks anyone can phone a reporter and tell any lie about loyalists and get into the media.

What I want him to see is that he could have a relationship with the media himself, if only to be called on occasionally to offer his own perspective.

I say, ‘Sinn Fein faced the media for decades being asked only about bombings and shooting and they developed a thick skin and winning smile. You could have done the same. You still could.’

The book’s impressive scope is displayed in further chapters on the portrayal of loyalism in film, sport and community allegiance, the Scots-Irish diaspora in America, loyalist bands culture (including analysis of how band participation builds confidence and community), Reid’s reflections on his upbringing and family history, and Hutchinson’s account of ‘paramilitarism and political manoeuvrings’, which also includes recollections from his childhood and teenage years.

With the marching season approaching (or already having begun in some places), a particularly relevant chapter is Kennaway’s on the Orange Order’s attempts to reposition, rebrand or reinvent itself and the Twelfth, ‘The Re-invention of the Orange Order: Triumphalism or Orangefest?’ Kennaway traces much of the Orange Order’s current public relations problems to the ‘Drumcree Debacle’ (p. 70), and covers strategies to improve its image such as the creation of ‘flagship’ twelfth and Belfast’s Orangefest.

One of Kennaway’s main concerns with Orangefest is that it emphasises culture rather than faith – perhaps not a surprising concern for a Presbyterian minister. He recounts the efforts of some Orangemen, such as former Deputy Grand Master Rev Stephen Dickinson, to return the organization to its religious roots through an internal group called ‘Orange Reformation’ (p. 76), an ultimately failed effort that ended with Dickinson’s resignation in 2011. Kennaway also notes that (p. 72):

‘The Orangefest concept has not been universally acceptable among Orangemen. Not just because it is not ‘traditional’ but also because it has not addressed the core issue of the behaviour of bands, which has brought such discredit to the public image of the Institution.’

And (p. 79):

‘The bottom line is you cannot present a positive image under the guise of Orangefest and not take steps to deal with the negative image constantly publicly displayed year after year. The negative image, all too public in recent years, of members appearing in court charged with a variety of criminal offences, and the constant provocation by the engagement of bands with perceived or real paramilitary connections, negatives any positive impact.’

For him, the ‘culture’ that Orangefest is attempting to save is not authentic and will not be so until and unless the Order returns to its basis in faith.

Among the academic chapters, Ashe and McCluskey’s work on the gendering of identities breaks some new ground in the area, going beyond the expected and stereotyped assertion that Catholic-Nationalist-Republican women have been more prominent politically and socially in their communities than have PUL women. While admitting that PUL women have been ‘less visible’ (p. 55), they provide an account of how women have become more involved in protests in recent years – with their visibility especially increased during marching conflicts and the flags protests. They argue that while participation in these protests has highlighted women’s roles, it has also reinforced gender stereotypes and inequalities, even though [quoting the 2013 research of Stapleton and Wilson] p. 66:

‘… [the women] claim that through the strength and success of their “female-only” protest, the men have come to accept them as co-players within the community structures that have particular (gendered) strengths to offer’ (Stapleton and Wilson 2013: 17).’

In terms of the potential future of PUL identities, there are two intriguing chapters that if read side-by-side, offer contrasting perspectives. (The two chapters are not presented consecutively in the volume, though I think it might have been useful to do so, in order to draw attention to their inherent contrasts.)

Robbie McVeigh’s chapter on ‘No One Likes Us, We Don’t Care: What is to be (Un) Done about Ulster Protestant Identity?’, is a stinging critique of much of what constitutes PUL identity. His analysis is based on historical examples of counter-cultural identities and failed unionist political projects. McVeigh doesn’t mince his words (p. 125):

‘Britishness, unionism and the Northern Ireland state create a series of straightjackets that prevent innovative thinking. The structures that have trapped us in counterproductive and self-destructive reaction have to be ditched – Britishness, ‘Ulster’, the Northern Ireland state. All of the reactionary baggage we load onto our youth should be consigned to the dustbin of history: loyalty, royalty, Orangeism, Fenian-baiting and Taig-hating – throw in the collarettes and the coronation mugs. We need to stop sacrificing ourselves on the whim of British imperial nationalism – that should be the main lesson we learn from the Somme.’

McVeigh calls for a ‘revising or rediscovery of Irish Protestantness, in all its complexity’ (p. 129), which means ‘coming to terms’ with Irishness and constructing a new politics based on that.

In contrast, Mulvenna’s chapter on ‘Labour Aristocracies, Triumphalism and Melancholy: Misconceptions of the Protestant Working-Class and Loyalist Community,’ presents a more sympathetic (if that is correct word) portrayal of loyalism and, I think, a more realistic analysis of possibilities for the renewal of identity, community and politics than throwing in the collarettes and embracing Irish Protestantness. The contrast is captured in the last sentence of Mulvenna’s chapter (p. 175):

‘There is no need to surrender tradition, but if it gets to the stage that the rest of the UK is saying they don’t like you … you should care.’

Mulvenna opens the chapter with an analysis of the presentation of loyalism and the Protestant working class as ‘poor white trash,’ a stereotype which was exacerbated during the flags protest – not least through the widespread use of the term ‘flegs.’ He argues that the protests have been debated in ‘social class terms’, which ignored the fact that ‘The protesting loyalists did not see the ‘new’ city centre as a place in which they were welcome anyway’ (p. 161).

Mulvenna then moves to a historical account in which he locates loyalism in a broader discussion of British working class identity and de-industrialization, before detailing how the violence of the Troubles contributed to a breakdown of civic life. Crucial to his argument is that ‘descriptions of the Protestant working class as historically ‘privileged’ has created a distorting effect on commentaries about the current malaise in the Protestant working class and loyalist community’ (p. 159).

Further, he notes that loyalism and loyalist initiatives around commemorating the ‘decade of centenaries’ have often been perceived and portrayed as ‘triumphalist.’ But unlike McVeigh, Mulvenna argues that loyalists can create and construct more positive and affirming identities from their cultural resources, including the upcoming 2016 commemoration of the Somme (p. 172). It’s worth dwelling on his conclusion (p. 160):

‘… by recapturing something of the civic life that existed before the Troubles, things might slowly be turned back in their favour, re-empowering a community which for so long has been bereft of strong leadership and kinship networks.’

With such diversity and complexity within the PUL community, it’s no surprise that the contributors to this volume offer such differing perspectives and disagree on key points. This enhances the contribution of the book, which deserves a wide audience, especially outside academia.

  • Turgon

    Red Lion that seems to be the price of academic textbooks. Remember academics need expensive holidays too.

    I agree that hearing critical voice is important. However, in a book about identities it might be sensible for balance to have voices from main stream unionists. Maybe unionist politicians, business leaders, conventional mainstream church leaders and leaders of the smaller conservative denominations, professionals, the more conventional wing of the Orange Order etc. might have been included for balance.

    That said some academics seem much more interested in somewhat dissenting voices. Maybe it fits in with their worldview or maybe it just sells more books.

  • Brian O’Neill

    Academic book pricing is bizarre in the extreme. The writers make very little cash probably a few hundred pound in total. The publisher does not make that much either as they don’t sell many copies.

    This is an edited book with an author getting a chapter. For these books the writers will likely get zero royalties.

    It makes more sense to make all academic books and papers free but there is a prestige with having your book with certain publishers.

    Academics are graded on their research. So bottom line is they make bugger all on books but it is good for your career.

    Try requesting the book from your local library.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The book, I find, provides a valuable and insightful survey of contemporary research into the protestant community here. It has fourteen contributors, from various part of the UK and Ireland, one Vancouver born. Their essays display a very balanced representation of opinion in examining a limited number of contested issues. What this collection of up to date academic work offers is a series of snapshots of very particular issues that the individual contributors have researched in some depth, presenting a spectrum of new and helpful insights. I cannot begin to see how this should be criticised as failing to provide summation of Unionism in its entirety, something the book makes no claim to do. Any book attempting that in 232 pages would need to simplify the issues it covered considerably, to the point of valuelessness. What we have here is something entirely different. Issues such as the revision of southern stereotypes of Unionism, the poor relationship of Loyalism with the media, the bitter embrace by protestants of alienation (“and we don’t care”), the Scots-Irish links with the United States, youth and marching bands, current paramilitarism and the inevitable misinterpretation of individual experience through mediation are all interestingly and intelligently covered.

    As Gladys says the book deserves a wider audience outside academia.

    Regarding the price, I expect that, despite being a high figure, the book has simply provided a platform for academic researchers to present their work without any fee. This is normal practice, and no-one, perhaps, other than those in the publisher’s marketing department will be drinking any cocktails at the Groucho Club from the proceeds or planning big splash holidays.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Brian, with some publisher experience myself, it reflects the fact that small runs of 1000 or 2000 books are sometimes all that can be marketed to limited academic audiences. Such hardcover books can cost up to £30.00 or more simply to print and bind. Once design, typesetting, editing and proof reading are accounted for, and the marketing, storage, distribution, and with at least 30/40% of face price going to the bookseller…

    It soon adds up.

    As I say above, the rule is that most contributors are simply published, no fee.

  • Brian O’Neill

    Oh I know all about. That’s the point I was making. No one makes any money of academic books.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I know I never have……

  • Granni Trixie

    Tantalising for such an interesting sounding book to be priced out of normal reach.
    Are the publishers not missing a trick here as presumably the price tag reflects their expectations that the book is of narrow appeal to academics whereas the critique above suggests it appeals more broadly.
    Hope of a lower price is at hand however for is it not the norm to bring out a less expensive soft back should the hardback sell well?

    Incidentally, I see that one of the contributors at least is someone who tends to be known in NI as “a Protestant Republican” which fits quite nicely into the themes explored in the book.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Brian, I think we were typing the same material at the same time.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Granni, few academic books like this ever get anywhere near becoming mass distribution paperback, the publishers just aren’t aiming at the bigger market. Four Courts are good at bringing paperbacks under £20.00 out, but they need authors to bring in grants to help reduce costs.

    You can get a look at the book’s chapters on Amazon’s “look inside” feature:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Contested-Identities-Ulster-Protestants/dp/1137453931/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1431838073&sr=8-1&keywords=contested+identities+of+ulster+protestants

    That’s how cheapskates like me do it, until I find a £20.00 copy on Abe Books, that or take it out of the McClay or the Linen Hall Library.

  • Granni Trixie

    Thanks – tips appreciated.

  • Robin Keogh

    In the readings I have done in the past mainly in the context of politics and history, I have stumbled on some work that looks at some of the areas mentioned above. I remember reading ‘The Faithful Tribe’ and ‘The Protestants of Ulster’. I really got a sense that the PUL identity struggled as a result of a sense of isolation from GB and the percieved threat from the Irish (Catholic) culture and people. The troubles compounded that stress and the slow seperation between Ulstermen and the British seemed to accelerate. Moreover, it is very difficult for any ethnic group when it appears their natural brothers and sisters (GB) do not share their pain or even understand their position let alone share their understanding of their Identity. Generally speaking, ethnic groups can depend on the sympathy and support of their metropolitan base; ukrainian Russians, Macedonian Albanians, Croatian Serbs. The ZULU nation spans many borders in Africa, living as large communities in different countries but they have a huge sense ot atatchment and kinship regardless. Similarly, the Irish in the North always had the symapthy and understanding of the South. The PUL community have never enjoyed the same or even similar support from Britain and in my view, it has arguably ontributed to those elements of PUL culture and identity that appear unsavory.

  • Cue Bono

    “The PUL community have never enjoyed the same or even similar support from Britain”

    I would suspect that the families of dead servicemen disagree. If true though why are the British still here? Why not do the easy thing and pull out of NI years ago?

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Cos who’d take us?

  • Robin Keogh

    The Bulk of the army have gone or were you asleep for all that

  • tmitch57

    As an author of academic books I can testify that the pricing is a result of fixed costs common to a print run of any book being divided by the expected sales to research libraries and the odd independent researcher in a subject. I protested to my first publisher about the expensive price of my first book and was told that all academic publishing suffered from the same problem.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I think you’re right there Robin, I gather (from my own experiences anyway, no doubt other people, particularly those of a military or top-end political background would disagree) that people in Britain don’t ‘identify’ with Northern Irish ‘British’ as much as the Northern Irish British would identify with GB.

    One of the things that affected the NI Protestant community was the great cultural carve-up that followed in the wake of partition and reinvigorated nationalism e.g. if something was to be seen as Irish nationalist then it was gradually erased from the new direction of unionism which went from Irish unionism to British nationalism (via Ulster nationalism) and hence Ulster Protestants have lost a great deal of their traditional culture e.g.

    Fiddle dancing*, uilleann pipes (as in the ‘gentlemen pipers’), local forms of Gaelic, Cammanachd/Shinny/Common (once considered the No.1 sport in 19th century Co Down), cross roads dancing, folk dancing**, folk sessions etc

    These things now have too much in common with ‘Irishness’ and as such are considered to be deadweight in the pursuit of British-purity so a once rich culture has now been hollowed out and the vacuum has been filled with a mix of things such as the quest to be not-Irish, British nationalism and an over reliance on parading as the cultural backbone of the community.

    *There were still fiddle dances in Orange Halls in Co Down in the 90’s,there may (hopefully) still be some somewhere (Willie Drennan, please stand up).

    Also, this is opening line of the version of the Sash I learnt in my yoof, (I notice that there’s a few versions):
    “For it’s here I am an Orangeman, just come across the sea
    For singing and for dancing, I hope that I’ll please thee,
    I can sing and dance with any man, as I did in days of yore.
    And its on the twelfth I long to wear the Sash My Father wore.


    Notice the emphasis on singing and dancing, to my mind that pertains to folk dancing and folk songs NOT singing Rangers-country-dance tunes on a badly lit dance floor in a pub’s function room with a tin of Tennents in hand…

    ** Hat’s off to Victoria Orange Hall, Larne for their support of Irish folk dancing

  • My point http://www.thedissenter.co.uk/237/contested-identities/.

    Nor do I think the voices in this book are ‘dissenting’. In fact they are highly consensual ‘progressive’ voices.

  • Alan N/Ards

    I was at a St. Patrick’s celebration the other month and every person there was a prod. Mainly Presbyterian prods, if I’m honest. A good few were kitted out in green and the band/singers (also prods) played Irish songs like Galway Bay, If your Irish etc. The Irish dancers ( also prods) performed a number of dances which went down very well. The craic was mighty, and there was no need for a tricolour, or rebel songs, to show that we are as Irish as the rest of our fellow islanders.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Great stuff Alan

    Here, I really think you’d like this:http://www.amazon.com/Handed-Down-Country-Fiddling-Dancing/dp/1908448512

    I think they sell it in no Alibis bookshop for a bargain price, it has seemingly endless examples of musical ‘Lundies’.

  • ted hagan

    Interesting topic, but I would have been interested to see whether the book delves into the various strands and diversity of unionism and Protestantism within Northern Ireland, of which there are many and also, very importantly, the class divisions. There are many Protestants within the state, from all classes, who abhor what the Orange Order has become and the thugs who associate with it. I get the impression from this review that the book focuses on the ‘hard right’ of Northern Ireland loyalism, which is surely only a part of the picture. Does it highlight the arts, for instance, and the important contribution Protestants from the North have made to Irish culture?

  • Spike

    Well said AG, its a great pity these traditional practices were lost in the cultural carve up. Ulster could/should have been a cultural hotpot. Whether Irish or British, whether native or planter, the Ulstermen are a unique lot…separated by our similarities!

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Cheers spike, I can’t help but think of how culturally rich NI (well, ‘Ulster’ in this case, though maybe not Cavan…) would be if we held on to these old traditions an indeed ‘shared’ them a bit.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Here Spike

    IF you like such things then this might appeal to ye, it’s a few ideas vomited onto a web-page:

    http://amgobsmacked.blogspot.co.nz/2014/04/ulster-scots-and-irish-nots.html
    I don’t really bother with the blog anymore but I think this one is worth a looksee.

  • You can’t have read Robbie McVeigh’s chapter.

  • For a supposedly academic tome, from the summary above it does seem to be fundamentally flawed in its approach.

    1. The title. “The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants”. Well I don’t feel there’s anything contested about my identity. I’m part British and part Irish and that’s that. Most of my friends and family would be in the same boat. So from the outset, the approach here is skewed towards a particular direction and conclusion.

    2. It says Ulster Protestants in the title, but then appears to focus on the “PUL Community”. Well, it would be really helpful if they would actually explain what their definition of “PUL Community” actually is, because through their application of the phrase, they seem to conflate all Ulster Protestants with the PUL Community. Whereas, the various views and activities that they associate with the PUL Community would only apply to a subset of people who would fit the description of Ulster Protestant.

    3. Enough of the Orange obsession. I don’t know what the statistics are, but only a tiny proportion of Ulster Protestants have any connection to the Orange. I personally don’t know any.

    4. Finally, for £68 you’d think they could come up with some better artwork for the cover. That is seriously embarrassing, nearly as bad as David Vance’s book. Oh yes and once again repeats the fallacy that Ulster Protestants are in some way defined by the Orange Order.

    I’m sure there’s some interesting individual viewpoints expressed within it, but it does appear to fit within a very skewed narrative.

  • andrew

    Seems odd not to offer a electronic copy perhaps 6 months later for perhaps a fiver. Might actually make a profit as there is basically no expense in it.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Good observation, Andrew, but the book trade has an insane logic all of its own. With these small editions, most academic publishers are happy to let them sell at full price over a long period, selling to institutional customers willing to pay the prohibitive price, and the odd fool like myself purchasing at still prohibitive trade prices. Should they issue a PDF at a lower price, they would be undercutting this already factored in “slow” trade.