The Untold Story of Ulster Protestantism…

As part of my unofficial English GCSE curriculum that was set by my teacher, there was a part that consisted of watching the movie “Michael Collins” (1996), studying its themes and some of the subsequent writings and poetry from that era, specifically focusing on the Easter Rising. In my naivety at the time, I asked if we would be studying any movies that would show the Unionist or indeed Protestant perspective? The response was that no such film or TV programme existed. I’ve always found this fact perplexing and to this day whilst many themes about Ireland and indeed Northern Ireland have been tackled on both the big and small screen, one demographic noticeable by their general absence is that of the Northern Protestant and Unionist.

Whilst Protestantism and Unionism are not the same thing, there is a heavy crossover between the two and I’ll be using both terms throughout as the article focuses on and relates to both demographics.

To an outside audience looking in on Ireland and Northern Ireland, the Unionist cause, in general, is completely unknown. For those who are aware of Unionism, their views will generally be less than flattering and Unionism will almost certainly not elicit any degree of sympathy from this audience. By contrast, Nationalism and Irish Republicanism dominate the Irish narrative on screen, and in many parts of the media and in general folklore, it is frequently portrayed as the underdogs fighting the oppressors in a just war. The effect is that the audience is rooting for their cause and this feeds into an overall theme that is unhealthy due to both the imbalance and at times inaccuracy of the narrative being put forward.

Taking a look at some of the many movies focusing on aspects of the conflict in Ireland, there are “Michael Collins” (1996) and “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” (2006), two movies that portray Irish Republicanism in a positive light, fighting a just war against the British or more specifically the English. “Maze” (2017) is the story of the 38 IRA prisoners breaking out from the supposed “most secure prison in Europe”, the film is presented as a thriller, the heavies are the prison wardens and the story is told in a manner that has everyone rooting for the escapees. Other films about the Maze include “Hunger” (2008) which tells the story of the Hunger Strikers, focusing heavily on Bobby Sands, it’s a dark movie and there is no doubt from watching this that the story is empathetic to the cause of the Hunger Strikers with the final text summation presenting the Hunger Strikers as winning a greater good with the British government conceding to all of their demands. Some movies focus on miscarriages of justice such as “In the Name of the Father”(1993) which is about four people falsely convicted of the 1974 Guildford pub bombings and “Bloody Sunday” (2002) which covers the killing of 14 unarmed civilians in Derry in 1972. There are many, many other films and TV productions that cover the Nationalist perspective such as the BBC’s “Rebel Heart” (2001) which details the story of Ireland gaining independence, and “Some Mother’s Son” (1996) depicting the mothers of two the hunger strikers and the personal difficulties that they endured during this time.

In contrast, Ulster Protestant stories have been, by and large, forgotten and if portrayed at all it’s usually a negative depiction. “Resurrection Man” (1998) is a loose retelling of the Shankhill Butchers and is a poor movie in general. “As the Beast Sleeps” whilst again focusing on Loyalist paramilitaries, this time in a post ceasefire era, at least attempts to explore the characters and their situations in a more complex manner, this in no doubt was aided by the writer Gary Mitchell coming from a Unionist background. Some found the story a little unexciting and due to the subject matter, it’s not a flattering depiction but it remains probably the only story of any note to be told from the Unionist perspective or more accurately the Loyalist perspective. “Peaky Blinders” introduces the character Inspector Chester Campbell a Protestant from an Ulster-Scots family who joined the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1884. The Campbell character succumbs to every stereotype of what some perceive an Ulster Protestant to be, a dour self-righteous hypocrite, a bully, a thug, corrupt, and someone who uses and abuses women for his sexual gratifications. The Campbell character is one of the few examples of a Protestant Unionist being portrayed on-screen and this manifestation would have left many Unionists wishing they could return to being ignored.

What are the Issues?

When the anti-Protocol violence was unfolding earlier this year, some in Unionism found themselves thrust onto the big stage to explain the riots to a wider audience. Frequently, the message was poorly communicated, muddled, and confusing with the wider audience often left confused and bemused. This is a story that has repeated itself down through the years with Unionism with only the subject matter changing. This also feeds into why the story of Unionism and Protestantism is not better told, the message has been poorly articulated, themes of Unionists being portrayed as colonialists and supremacists have not only been poorly rebutted but at times, they’ve been accepted by some as a fair narrative. In addition to this, Unionism and Protestantism have collectively failed to tell their own story on the complex subjects that have occurred both in Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole. This has left their overall history being forgotten about and at times misconstrued. There is also huge mistrust within Protestantism and Unionism of the media, convincing people from a Protestant background that telling their story through various forms of media would be a worthwhile pursuit is often met with a sceptical look. Playwright Gary Mitchell said the following which has more than a smidgeon of truth to it:

Protestants don’t write plays, you see. You must be a Catholic or a Catholic sympathiser, or a homosexual to do that. No one in our community does that because playwriting is a silly pretend thing.

Another problem Protestants face is that their story is difficult to tell, it is frequently a defensive story about holding onto the status quo, this doesn’t stir the blood like the romantic stories of Republicanism seeking freedom that grace our screens. There are few outside parallels to draw from, American history has some obvious similarities such as the Alamo, a Catholic mission that had several defenders who were of Ulster Protestant descent. There is even a Loyalist mural depicting Davy Crockett in Ballymoney. However, such similarities are few and far between, whilst Nationalists and Republicans can connect with many global conflicts, social issues, and figures whilst seamlessly working them into their own story from Palestine to the Black Lives Matter movement and Che Guevara.

A significant problem that a Protestant story will encounter is in attaining an audience that is willing to learn about it. American audiences are so used to hearing the Republican themes and a large Irish American audience there also relates to these themes as well as both being sympathetic and supportive of them. However, it’s not true that all Americans are completely unaware of opposing narratives to the history of Ireland. Unexpectedly, some years ago I encountered an episode of “Columbo” that tackled to some degree the Northern Ireland conflict. This story was a break from the norm as the murderer was a former IRA man who was in America masquerading as a peace activist and poet whilst simultaneously raising money from naive Americans for IRA weapons. Naturally, Columbo unravels the mystery but also reveals the terrorist nature of some of the IRA members that were being eulogised in America by the “peace activist”, including the stark reality that they had murdered women and children. This, of course, was a rare break from the norm but it was certainly a worthwhile effort in presenting an alternative perspective and it also questioned America’s role in the overall conflict. At the time of writing, the UUP has sent a delegation to America to present the Unionist case, this is a bold but necessary move and something Unionism as a whole should build upon. It would be unrealistic to expect to see huge changes in how a global audience views Northern Ireland, however, it’s very important that the Unionist cause is at least heard and better understood.

The UUP has published via social media some of the meetings the party has had in the USA, predictably a message of outreach and dialogue can get corrupted on social media as happens all too often.

This problem is particularly difficult for Unionists who use social media to articulate views, frequently threads will become tarnished by trolls who rather than engaging with the topic will distort the thread with their own spin, usually with a series of unrelated tweets and graphics. This is sometimes blamed on the so-called “Shinnerbots”, a term used to describe fanatical Sinn Fein posters online who troll and attempt to discredit opponents whilst defending their party at all costs. Mary Lou McDonald has appealed to party supporters to stop being “pig-ignorant” to opponents online. However, it’s all too easy to place the blame solely at the feet of Sinn Fein supporters, although there is a clear issue there in terms of online abuse. Many Unionists come in for sustained abuse and gaslighting on social media, often for rather innocent tweets and the source of the abuse is not always from Sinn Fein posters. The following tweet from Jeffrey Donaldson resulted in an onslaught of abuse and trolling for an entire day, worth remembering that Donaldson had spent the week congratulating athletes representing both team GB and team Ireland on Olympic successes.

Unionists expressing even the most moderate of pro-Union views will often get hammered for these sentiments, too often from those claiming to want to get Unionists involved in Unification talks. If you’re interested in understanding how Twitter works, tweet “I think Northern Ireland should remain as part of the Union” and a few days later tweets “I think Northern Ireland should break its links with the UK and should be free and united with the rest of Ireland” and compare the reactions to each tweet. Disappointingly, too few opponents of Unionism call out this incessant trolling, even when it happens on their timelines, such silence can be seen by some as an endorsement.

As well as the onslaught of trolling that too many Unionists have to endure, some Unionists also do themselves no favours by frequently making poorly thought out, inaccurate or incoherent tweets. Some in Unionism also engage in casual sectarianism and trolling, the trolling undermines and distorts the validity of the Unionist message and the cause would be better served if a swathe of those “Unionist” troll accounts were removed. However, by and large, most Unionists don’t seriously engage with social media, particularly Twitter, the hassle for some is just not worth it. This is an issue that Unionists have raised continually and have frequently had it dismissed as paranoia and inevitably received more trolling.

In February the BBC aired a skit from a Sinn Fein supporter called Tadhg Hickey featuring a Loyalist in a house share with people from other parts of the UK. The video was originally aired on Twitter.

The Loyalist was portrayed as an imbecile and appears naïve to the fact that he’s unwanted by those he shares a house with. The skit received a backlash from many within Unionism from all shades, many were disgruntled with the stereotypical portrayal of a Loyalist as being an ignoramus and felt that the central theme was flawed e.g., that Northern Unionists are unaware of how many in England view them. The main criticism against the BBC was the fact that under no circumstances would a similar skit have been aired of a Unionist poking fun at Nationalists.

This paralleled with Nuala McKeever’s tirade against a UUP member at a Climate Action protest when she mistook the member for being a Protestant and advised that “it’s not true that the Prods don’t care” before changing tack upon realising the UUP member was not a Protestant, McKeever even managed to have a dig at Malachi O’Doherty.

McKeever was actually onto something when she flagged that events such as the Climate Action protest and many protests in similar veins are usually ignored by mainstream Protestants and Unionists, not so much that they don’t care but more so that there is a concern and sometimes justified that these initiatives are hijacked by groups with alternative agendas, McKeever’s tirade probably didn’t help to quell those fears. Northern Ireland-based comedy “Derry Girls” made the news when Conservative MP John Whittingdale labelled it as an example of a “distinctly British” production. This was quickly repudiated by many connected to the show as it depicts a group of Catholic Nationalists and their experience of living in Derry during the troubles, labelling it as British was also seen as an insult and it’s certainly not a mistake any Unionist from Northern Ireland would have made. On the comedy circuit, it’s also noticeable that there are few to no Unionist (or at least openly Unionist) comedians, looking into this one would have to go as far back as Jimmy Young to find such a comedian, no doubt some think “the Prods aren’t funny”. It’s an unusual anomaly, perhaps Unionist material in comedy sketches wouldn’t quite work, be understood, or be appreciated? This is reminiscent of James Nesbitt singing the Sash in “Cold Feet” in what was supposed to be a funny moment but resulted in a plethora of complaints to ITV. Liam Neeson also sang the Sash in a short western movie called “Meal Ticket” (2018), but his character was a callous drunk who was preparing to commit an evil deed. Neeson and Nesbitt also acted together in “5 Minutes of Heaven” (2009) which tells the story of a Loyalist killer (Neeson) meeting the brother (Nesbitt) of the man he murdered. Whilst Neeson’s portrayal was rather good, the optics again are of the Unionist being portrayed as a sectarian killer which as outlined earlier conforms to how Unionists are portrayed onscreen.

When it comes to telling the story of Northern Ireland to a wider audience, the partial telling or indeed mistelling of it is not just on our screens. Having been on a Black Cab tour in Belfast with a large contingent (mostly not from Ireland) I was left at the end with more questions than answers. The tour was an odd juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy told by travelling on both sides of a peace wall. The Unionist side was treated as a joke, a comedy with a heavy focus on looking out for people with “their eyes too close together”, then there was the perception given upon viewing a mural of a Loyalist killer that all Unionists worshipped him. The juxtaposition upon crossing the line could not have been starker, the Nationalist side was treated as a tragedy, it was a sombre experience and much time was devoted to telling the hardships that they had endured during the troubles, The Nationalist side of the peace wall was fine, the disappointing aspect of the tour was how poorly the Unionist side of the peace wall was portrayed, it was used as an excuse for cheap jokes and casual stereotyping.

What stories are there to tell?

There are a plethora of stories to tell from the Protestant and Unionist perspectives, and if told and presented well they will attract an audience. The most obvious example that springs to mind is the Siege of Derry, something that combines so many tenets associated with Protestantism and Unionism, infighting, the “treacherous” Lundy, the siege mentality, the thran nature, the “no surrender” mentality, but above all, it’s an interesting story with many fascinating characters from history involved. The Larne gun-running escapades seem ripe for the screen, listening to the excellent “The Long and the Short of It” on Radio Ulster, this saga had an episode devoted to it with historian David Hume quipping that this story was ideal for the big-screen treatment. Other stories could include the vulnerable Protestant communities living in border areas during the troubles, the difficulties Unionism faced leading up to partition, serving Protestant soldiers and police officers during the height of the troubles and then there are the famous figures from history such as Edward Carson and Ian Paisley who love or loathe them led truly fascinating lives that would produce enough material for several movies. There is so much material here that it’s amazing and bewildering to realise that in 2021 it has been completely ignored.

Final Thoughts

There is a saying that if you ask a Protestant or Unionist what they want, the answer is “to be left alone”. There is much truth in this saying, however, the problem is that in many streams of society, Protestantism and by extension Unionism has been left alone and this has led to a narrative being created around them of the complex history of Ireland that at best ignores their contributions or at worst simplifies and misrepresents it, often as a one-dimensional villain. Most Protestants prefer to keep their heads down and just get on with things, as Gary Mitchell outlined, things like the art and media don’t interest them and hence they often view it with suspicion and certainly don’t get involved with it. This is a problem when on complex issues only half of a story is told, especially now at a time when Unionists more than ever will need to put their best foot forward, particularly in relation to selling the Union which includes recognising the rights and wrongs of the past, ignoring the media will be counterintuitive. Whilst there has to be some recognition that in certain aspects of the media the Protestant and Unionist story has been forgotten, Protestantism and Unionism have to take their share of the responsibility for poor messaging and no messaging. The BBC has come in for criticism for what is deemed to be a “poor” or “questionable” representation of Unionism on some of its shows, however, only a small handful put their names forward to appear so in some regards the BBC is hamstrung on this issue.

Inevitably some will view an article like this negatively, it will be seen by some as “mopery” and “dripping with exceptionalism”. However, many of the stories I have outlined above were worth telling, the point of this article is to encourage a fuller perspective of the history of Ireland, that doesn’t mean Nationalist and Republican stories should no longer be told, invariably they will continue to be told but it would be fitting to have stories and themes focusing on the Protestant and Unionist lived experiences too. In a time when a more diverse experience is expected on our screens and across the media, it seems the omission or simplistic representation of the Unionist and Protestant demographic remains a noticeable anomaly and this is long overdue being redressed.

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