As is so often the case in Northern Ireland, the hyperbole around Bertie Ahern’s recent comments about the ignorance of East Belfast and “ghetto” Protestants (I paraphrase but that’s the essence of his comment) has been loud. Also, again as usual, it has missed the point and therefore let genuinely guilty parties off the hook.
Of course Bertie Ahern wasn’t being sectarian. There is nothing in his political past to suggest that he would be that way minded. And of course there’s not a great depth of understanding of the protocol among those most vocally opposing it (just as there’s no great depth of understanding of it among those most vocally endorsing it). He just chose his words very badly and in so doing demonstrated a) how long he has been away from the coalface, and b) just how little knowledge of our two communities exist among those who dine out on having brought about our current relative stability.
So Bertie’s comments were not the issue. The real story here is just how readily his dismissal of working-class Protestant communities was accepted and how normalised such dismissals are among not only republicans, but also among a growing element of the broad middle class across both communities. In these hands we are dealing with a snobbery and self-righteous pomposity running rampant throughout a growing segment of our society. This is rarely addressed but if not confronted we risk an extreme level of alienation and all the dangers that accompany it. It needs to stop.
We need to get away from this lazy and thoroughly dishonest notion that anyone who espouses a unionist position or criticises nationalism is somehow struggling to get used to not dominating nationalists. Also we need to reject this widely espoused dismissal of PUL communities hankering after a power they have no experience of holding.
That simply isn’t true. Moreover it is a cynical, nasty stereotype designed to do nothing but dehumanise an entire community. Stormont existed in its original form for 51 years. It has been gone for 49. So any unionist with any genuine recollection of the “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People” would need to be at least seventy (and at least 72 to have voted for it), as would any Catholic who experienced the negative impact of it. Yet it is constantly cast up to us, not least by those who endorse the Provisionals’ campaign without having lived through the random carnage it inflicted on everyone here.
Last week I saw a pretty low-profile DUP MLA being called to put the years of domination behind him. Not a politician I would vote for, but nevertheless he was born over a decade after Stormont fell, raised in a working class community, and never having been a member of the party that actually governed here 1921-72! But so what? Let’s dismiss his right to comment anyway.
Even our friend Choyaa was the victim of this unfair generalisation on Twitter this weekend. In a debate about the current commentator class on our mainstream media, Choyaa commented that one regularly utilised commentator “was appearing on TV around the GE19 to give an analysis, the BBC had to be forced into disclosing (after several appearances) that said commentator had signed a SF candidate’s nomination paper”. Not an unreasonable point given that Alex Kane and Jamie Bryson are usually (and correctly) introduced respectively as “unionist commentator” and “loyalist blogger.” Needless to say he was told he simply didn’t want “the other sort” on the airwaves. So no effort made to familiarise with Choyaa’s consistently conciliatory output on Slugger and elsewhere. He’s one of those so he can just be dismissed with a lazy, sectarian trope.
While this attitude hardens within society, we are also confronted with a growing cottage industry of writers whose specialist subject is simply highlighting flaws of the “Protestant” community. This is rarely challenged, yet that same community continues to demonstrate an admirable ability to think for itself and vote for a wide range of candidates and parties in overwhelmingly pro-union areas such as East Belfast and North Down. A tendency rarely if ever recognised and discussed on our mainstream media.
I am not blind to the many faults within the community I come from. I’m sure I know those failings better than those from outside the community do, and I have little taste for much of what is represented by mainstream political unionism. I have written here before of my political homelessness. But equally I am not prepared to see that community demonised from outside or vilified by those within it in a pathetic attempt to demonstrate how “progressive” they are. You know the sort. You’ve all heard them at parties.
In my first ever OP on Slugger I spoke of how I view most of the “Protestant” community in Northern Ireland. I wrote that
“We favour the union and are British without being stridently unionist, orange or even “Protestant” in any meaningful sense. We are comfortable in our Irishness, and our broader politics are neither determined by our constitutional preference nor conforming to the traditional stereotype.
We supported equal marriage and were embarrassed by being lumped in with those who opposed it. We are prepared to accept the judgement of women on reproductive matters. We supported the Good Friday Agreement and voted Remain in significant numbers.
Most importantly we do not obsess over the events of 1969-1997 rather we want our children to grow up in a pluralist, respectful society,”
I also wrote that the worst thing that could happen was that a perceived demographic shift could lead to rise of an extreme triumphalism and score settling. Something that I – not alive when Stormont was in its pomp, hardly a product of the ascendancy and whose family had never been near the levers of power – was never prepared to accept.
Yet that is what’s happening. It needs to be recognised and acknowledged for what it is. Either sectarianism or snobbery. And it is seriously impacting on younger generations who should have no reason to distrust or dislike each other. That’s some legacy from the GFA generation.
Ian Clarke spent 36 years in sales & marketing for newspapers in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland – including the Belfast Telegraph, Wolverhampton Express & Star, Northern Echo and The Herald (Glasgow) after graduating from QUB in Political Science. Glentoran supporter.