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Home Uncategorized Backs to the Wall

Backs to the Wall

Andy Pollak

Inventing the Myth: Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination, by Connal Parr, Oxford University Press, 294 pp, £55, ISBN: 978-0198791591

The widely held view of the Northern Ireland Protestant working class is of “a group which is reactionary, prone to violence, possessing little or no Left and Labour history, and nothing approaching a literary heritage”, says Connal Parr at the beginning of this fascinating book. He sets out with the entirely noble aim of seeking to correct this misperception.

The jury must be out on whether he has succeeded. Certainly nobody can fault the meticulousness of Parr’s research, the depth of his interviews and the multiplicity of his sources. He sets out his stall powerfully in the opening chapter on Northern Ireland’s continuing cultural wars: largely an account of how republicans, led by “volunteers” turned writers like Ronan Bennett and Danny Morrison, have successfully demonised their Northern neighbours as reactionaries and ignoramuses.

These are unashamedly political writers. Bennett believes that writing novels is an effective way for him to “play a part” politically. In a Guardian article in 1994, he claimed that Northern Protestants lived in “an intolerable mental world”, with a culture limited to “little more than flute bands, Orange marches and the chanting of sectarian songs at football matches”. Morrison admits that in his fiction he remains a republican propagandist: his stories contain “self-justifications. Some aspects of the conflict – the heroism, the sacrifices – will be singled out, glorified; others, belonging to the darker side, will be suppressed or sanitised.” He admits that “republicans have the luxury of assuming that history’s on their side”. Neither Bennett nor Morrison, with their left-wing secular world view and passionate (if now past) attachment to violent republicanism, can be expected to have the slightest understanding for or empathy with three of the most important characteristics of Northern Ireland’s unionist community: their proud British identity, their attachment to evangelical Protestantism and their bitter rejection of the IRA and all it stands for.

However two broader-minded Marxist figures – both women ‑ agree with them. The English theatre director Pam Brighton, who devoted much of her later years to working in West Belfast’s Catholic community, called it “a much brighter community. It’s a much sharper community that has a future and can see it. West Belfast has something to celebrate and East Belfast doesn’t. I think the working class Protestant working class, as in East Belfast, is fucked on the whole, absolutely fucked. Unionism will not come to terms with the fact that the future ain’t going to be what it imagines.”

The former MP Bernadette McAliskey says that many loyalists have internalised the idea that they are a “white trash” underclass. When she has worked with young loyalists she has been surprised to hear them begin by saying “We know we are scum.” “I don’t understand any human being starting a conversation saying that they are not human. There is a clear lack of self-esteem and also a loss of confidence.”

Parr writes that the continuing republican struggle against Britain, and accompanying denigration of unionism, through art, literature and culture has led to “demoralization and a sense of defeatism” in the Protestant working class. This has been one of the great success stories of nearly fifty years of relentless republican propaganda, and nobody doubts how successful the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin have been as propagandists. Go into an Irish bar in any country in the world and ask for a summary of the 1968-1998 Northern Ireland “Troubles” and you will quickly see how successful.

Inventing the Myth: Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination, by Connal Parr, Oxford University Press, 294 pp, £55, ISBN: 978-0198791591

The widely held view of the Northern Ireland Protestant working class is of “a group which is reactionary, prone to violence, possessing little or no Left and Labour history, and nothing approaching a literary heritage”, says Connal Parr at the beginning of this fascinating book. He sets out with the entirely noble aim of seeking to correct this misperception.

The jury must be out on whether he has succeeded. Certainly nobody can fault the meticulousness of Parr’s research, the depth of his interviews and the multiplicity of his sources. He sets out his stall powerfully in the opening chapter on Northern Ireland’s continuing cultural wars: largely an account of how republicans, led by “volunteers” turned writers like Ronan Bennett and Danny Morrison, have successfully demonised their Northern neighbours as reactionaries and ignoramuses.

These are unashamedly political writers. Bennett believes that writing novels is an effective way for him to “play a part” politically. In a Guardian article in 1994, he claimed that Northern Protestants lived in “an intolerable mental world”, with a culture limited to “little more than flute bands, Orange marches and the chanting of sectarian songs at football matches”. Morrison admits that in his fiction he remains a republican propagandist: his stories contain “self-justifications. Some aspects of the conflict – the heroism, the sacrifices – will be singled out, glorified; others, belonging to the darker side, will be suppressed or sanitised.” He admits that “republicans have the luxury of assuming that history’s on their side”. Neither Bennett nor Morrison, with their left-wing secular world view and passionate (if now past) attachment to violent republicanism, can be expected to have the slightest understanding for or empathy with three of the most important characteristics of Northern Ireland’s unionist community: their proud British identity, their attachment to evangelical Protestantism and their bitter rejection of the IRA and all it stands for.

However two broader-minded Marxist figures – both women ‑ agree with them. The English theatre director Pam Brighton, who devoted much of her later years to working in West Belfast’s Catholic community, called it “a much brighter community. It’s a much sharper community that has a future and can see it. West Belfast has something to celebrate and East Belfast doesn’t. I think the working class Protestant working class, as in East Belfast, is fucked on the whole, absolutely fucked. Unionism will not come to terms with the fact that the future ain’t going to be what it imagines.”

The former MP Bernadette McAliskey says that many loyalists have internalised the idea that they are a “white trash” underclass. When she has worked with young loyalists she has been surprised to hear them begin by saying “We know we are scum.” “I don’t understand any human being starting a conversation saying that they are not human. There is a clear lack of self-esteem and also a loss of confidence.”

Parr writes that the continuing republican struggle against Britain, and accompanying denigration of unionism, through art, literature and culture has led to “demoralization and a sense of defeatism” in the Protestant working class. This has been one of the great success stories of nearly fifty years of relentless republican propaganda, and nobody doubts how successful the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin have been as propagandists. Go into an Irish bar in any country in the world and ask for a summary of the 1968-1998 Northern Ireland “Troubles” and you will quickly see how successful.

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