Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground, by Susan McKay, Blackstaff Press, 346 pp, €19.99, ISBN: 978-1780732640
This is a brave and brilliant book. For those of us who have watched the decline and fall of the unionist monolith, and the resultant fear and confusion of many Protestant and unionist people, it is also a sad one. With the probability that some kind of Irish unity is approaching in the near to medium future – and because the great majority of people in the Republic are deeply ignorant about Northern Protestants and their problematic place in that future ‑ it is also one that should be compulsory reading for anybody who is concerned about this island’s well-being.
Susan McKay is a self-confessed “Lundy”. Robert Lundy was the governor of Derry who wanted to open the gates and negotiate with the besieging Catholic forces of King James II in 1689, after they had been slammed shut by thirteen Protestant apprentice boys. For traditional unionists, he is a hate figure, a traitor whose effigy is burnt every year on the “Twelfth” bonfires. McKay concludes her book with the words: “I am Northern Irish, my husband and children are Irish … I am reconciled to my Lundyism. There are a lot of us [this writer is another]. I enjoy the company and we are not planning to flee.”
As the likelihood of a Border poll increases, a central question is how many of the 900,000 or so Northern unionists will flee in the event of a very narrow – and it will be very narrow – vote for unity. Former DUP leader Arlene Foster has said she will be one. Some of the Northern Protestants McKay talks to – particularly in working class housing estates and border areas – will certainly follow Foster to England or Scotland. They will become Britain’s pieds noirs: embittered and abandoned as they are forced out of their native province (which is how they will see it), and giving their support to the most reactionary and anti-Irish elements in British politics.
Others will come to terms with the new dispensation, however much they detest it; and if it means a united Ireland dominated by Sinn Féin, unrepentant apologists for the IRA, who spent thirty years bombing and killing them, they will detest it even more. A few – perhaps more than a few – will accept it more willingly and will try their best to make it work for everyone.
McKay has roamed Northern Ireland seeking out all these people, and many more. Her range of interviewees in a community not known for being courageously outspoken – especially to a Republic of Ireland-based writer – is extraordinary. She uncovers a rich tapestry of backgrounds and opinions in a people usually characterised – and often demonised ‑ as narrow, intolerant and prejudiced.
Here is just a flavour of some of them: gay men from the Antrim glens and Belfast housing estates; a left-wing feminist from Ballymoney; the sister of Edgar Graham, the Queen’s University law lecturer murdered by the IRA in 1983; a young woman who runs an all-Ireland haulage business from Antrim town; the trade unionist and southeast Antrim community activist Mark Langhammer, and other youth and community workers in the impoverished estates of that loyalist heartland; a Northern Ireland international woman footballer; a mixed race former paramilitary from east Belfast; a Baptist pastor with a Malaysian husband who works on the Belfast “peace line”; the daughter of a man murdered by loyalist thugs on the Newtownards Road in 2019; Alan McBride, who lost his wife and father-in-law in the IRA’s 1993 bombing of a fish shop in Belfast’s Shankill Road; the Protestant Irish language activist Linda Ervine; former Progressive Unionist Party leader Dawn Purvis and activist Sophie Long; Protestant students who believe Queen’s University has become a “cold house” for unionists, and Protestant students who don’t; South Down fishermen of all political viewpoints; a woman who was slandered by grammar school “rugby boys” involved in gender-based bullying and sexual abuse; the son of a prison officer murdered by dissident Republicans in 2012; the sister of a man killed by the IRA in the 1976 Kingsmill massacre; a hard-line evangelical preacher and his South Armagh congregation; a Nigerian Church of Ireland woman rector on the Fermanagh-Donegal-Leitrim border; unionist politicians Sammy Wilson and Roy Beggs; novelists Jan Carson and Phil Harrison (both from ultra-Protestant evangelical backgrounds); poets Jean Bleakney and Scott McKendry; playwright Stacey Gregg. All human life is here.
McKay is a courageous and resolute researcher, not flinching from the most difficult and potentially dangerous encounters. In Bangor she tries to attend a “betrayal act” (against the Northern Ireland Protocol) rally in an Orange hall but is aggressively shown the door. She joins a protest in Portrush against the closure of a Royal British Legion care and respite centre for former British soldiers. She tours places in South Armagh where Protestants had been murdered by the IRA in the company of the late Willie Frazer, a unionist hard-liner whose father had been one of them. Frazer points out houses where he says the killers live, calling them “nests of rats”. She goes into the hardest of hard loyalist estates and converses with an anonymous paramilitary who warns that any change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional status “would cause an eruption of violence equal to if not worse than that of the past”.
However she is also determined to paint Northern Protestants in all their complex and varied human colours, rather than scrunching them into the usual Orange. She discovers as many heroes as villains, as much bravery as bigotry. Many of her most impressive interviewees are women. Amy lives in a housing estate in a mid-Ulster town with many flags. She understands only too well that poor Protestants are the “scum of the earth” in many people’s eyes, and that “nobody is interested in investing in young people from that background, even if they have brains … I can understand why young working-class Protestant men think no one gives a shit about them.”
She is a senior housing manager now and could move to a middle class area, but chooses not to. As an intelligent, outspoken woman she is a target for threatening abuse on social media. “It’s not good for a woman to be seen to be doing well in loyalist communities. The men don’t like it.” But Amy is a fighter. She saw one of her keyboard warrior abusers working in a local filling station and openly challenged him: “‘Are you the wee fucker who has been targetting me online? Say it to my face. I’m standing here now. Come on.’ He near shit himself and he walked away into the garage.”
Amy was the only one in her family and friendship circle who had voted to remain in the EU. Why was that? “A border as high as you can get it and all the foreigners out. And no united Ireland. They just did what the DUP said, and sure now it has all backfired on the DUP. But round here if you don’t vote DUP you are an outcast.” She doesn’t “even want to think about a Border Poll. Oh my God, World War Three. I really do think loyalists are back in 1912 right now.”
Debbie Watters, who runs Northern Ireland Alternatives, a community-based restorative justice group, is another admirable woman. She comes from Tobermore in Co Derry, in the shadow of the Sperrin mountains. “Growing up in a village that was 99.9% Protestant has definitely shaped who I am … Overt sectarianism was the world that I grew up in. You know: ‘Don’t sell your land to a Catholic’, and even the awful ‘The only good Fenian is a dead Fenian.’” (Although her family did not think or talk in that way.)
Watters is one of those who are politically stranded by the fact that she is pro-union but not comfortable voting for any of the unionist parties. “For me the issues that are important are poverty, mental health, equality, human rights. If you look back to the whole trade union movement, which was very strong within working-class loyalism, I’m not sure how we’ve ended up here. Part of it is because republicans have seen human rights and equality as a platform, and unionists have sat back and allowed them to hijack it. They’re scared to use the narrative, in case they’re seen as being wishy-washy unionists … Negotiation, compromise, changing your point of view – all were seen as appeasement.
“Republicanism and nationalism have seasoned politicians who have come from the grass roots,” she says. “What is missing within unionist politics is activism. We have politicians that know how to manoeuvre, but they are disconnected from the people. They go straight for the Orange card but the social issues have been neglected. The people who are disadvantaged by this vote unionist to keep republicans out. The quality of their life hasn’t truly changed since the Good Friday Agreement. They feel angry and abandoned. So they blame the agreement.”
She concludes: “I believe in the union. But if my sense of identity and my family’s sense of identity was respected, if I could live the same quality of life, if there was a health care system and an education system that I didn’t have to pay for outside of taxes, I think I could be quite relaxed about a united Ireland.”
Eileen Weir from the Shankill Road is an extraordinary woman: peacemaker, trade unionist and community activist. McKay sat in on some of her weekly women’s discussion sessions, where the complexities of health, housing, employment and welfare systems “kept many of them and their families in a constant state of stress. Being poor was a full-time occupation.” She was amazed by the “warmth, openness and solidarity the women showed towards each other”. They talked about everything, even Irish unity. What would happen to them as Protestants? “Nothing should happen to you,” said Weir. “It should be a shared Ireland for everybody with nobody left out. You’ll not get any special treatment, but you’ll not get any worse treatment than anybody else. It’s trying to build an equal society, where one religion doesn’t fear the other religion. The plan is that you will still be able to do and celebrate what you want to celebrate, and still have your own culture.”
The east Belfast community worker and former DUP Assembly member Sammy Douglas compares unity with the end of life. “I know a lot of people fear a united Ireland. But it is a bit like death. Most people don’t fear being dead, they fear the process of dying. Irish unity wouldn’t be as bad as the process of getting Irish unity. You could probably live quite peacefully in a united Ireland; it is just that the ten years of it becoming a united Ireland would probably be pretty awful.”
Aadi, the half-West Indian former paramilitary from east Belfast, and clearly a thoughtful and intelligent man, sums up the views of many ordinary unionists who might not want to stay in a unified Ireland. “If there was a border poll and people voted to leave [the UK], I would accept it because that is democracy, but we would not be unionists any more and I would probably leave. I would either go to England or back home to the West Indies. I would be sad. For all the faults with Northern Ireland, and with Ireland as a whole, it’s a great country.”
However he notes that there is still an arrogance about unionism: “They don’t think that they have to explain their case … The minute you start questioning it, they pull up the drawbridge, or they say, oh, that guy doesn’t get it, he’s a Lundy … There’s not the same political development in unionist communities as there is in nationalist communities. There are the same issues – bad housing, bad education, bad job prospects, poor political parties, poor public services. But unionist communities always take the view that if you oppose those, you seem to be a traitor. So it’s difficult for them.”
Alan McBride takes this point further. After regretting the “terrible lack of generosity” (and homophobia) of many in his community, he continues: “There’s this thing that we, meaning unionists, have given and given and got nothing back. I don’t see it, whether politically or culturally, socially or economically, I just don’t see what we have given. If anything, there is a sense of entitlement that must sicken people in other parts of the UK.”
McBride, an open-minded man who now votes Alliance, calls himself “a romantic unionist – I just love being part of a group of islands that are so diverse and incredible”. Having experienced terrible trauma himself, he has worked unstintingly for many years on behalf of the victims of the Troubles and their families. But he runs the serious risk of being seen as another Lundy. “I am a pragmatist. And I mean, economically, I want to be able to have a house and a car and a job and a standard of living. And to be honest with you, those things matter more to me than the flag that’s flying above our country. And if, because of Brexit, Northern Ireland is not flourishing and the South is, why would you not want to be part of that? I absolutely would.” Former Progressive Unionist Party leader Dawn Purvis has a darker view. She quotes the belief of her charismatic predecessor, the late David Ervine, that the DUP would be responsible for the break-up of the union. “And he is being proved right. He said the DUP couldn’t make Northern Ireland work because, in his words, the party just hated Taigs.”
An admirable young man who defies all the stereotypes is Stephen Donnan-Dalzell, who lives in one of the toughest housing estates in the Shankill Road area, works in a homeless hostel, has been an election candidate for the Alliance Party and is a gay man. His parents are “born again” Christians. “I know the Orange state stripped away the rights, entitlements and expressions of identity of nationalists and republicans and Irishness here, and that was abhorrent and entirely wrong. But you can’t start a new Ireland by doing the same thing to working-class Protestants,” he says.
“My mum and dad worked in the RUC during the Troubles and lost friends and saw some horrific things. So I need to be more mindful, I think, of why they feel that they need to vote for the DUP … I’m thirty-one. I’m very lucky that I grew up in a time when the Troubles were coming to an end. One of my really good friends, she lives in London, and she is a die-hard republican from Armagh, a big GAA supporter. We’re both lefties. But certain conversations are uncomfortable because she doesn’t think there’s any such thing as a good soldier, or a member of the RUC that was a decent person. And when she says those things, she’s actually talking about my parents.
“You have to try to empathise. Like, there are people voting for the DUP on the Shankill estate who lost relatives in the Shankill bomb. It’s hard for people to look past the constitutional issue because it’s not just about their place in the union, or their place in a united Ireland. It’s about the people they buried, it’s about the things they have had to witness, it’s about the bodies they have pulled out of rubble. It’s really deeply personal. We haven’t recovered as a society from the mass trauma of the Troubles, and the health infrastructure is just not there to deal with that.”
Donnan-Dalzell encapsulates the view of many open-minded unionists when he says: “I just want to live in a place that thrives. I would prefer it to be within the EU, and I would prefer it to be within a United Kingdom, but whether we have a united Ireland or not, unless there is significant social change in how the most vulnerable are treated, it doesn’t make a difference.”
Many of McKay’s interviewees – particularly those with lower incomes ‑ are sick of hearing endlessly about the constitutional question and emphasise the importance of issues like poverty, mental health, integrated education and gender discrimination, all neglected as the DUP and Sinn Féin obsess over British sovereignty and the Irish border. Derry community worker Catherine Pollock, while stressing that as a democrat she will accept a majority vote for unity, goes on: “I don’t see much of a difference in Dublin or London. I think I’ll be poor no matter if the border’s there or not.”
Sixteen-year-old Rebecca Crockett, who grew up happily on a cross-border farm outside Derry, says: “I’m just from the border really. I don’t have any connection to England and I don’t really have a connection to Ireland. I’m Northern Irish. I wouldn’t say I’m loyal to a flag or a government or anything. I’m more loyal to people.” She is, however, interested in politics, with the climate movement being her top priority “because it’s an issue of now or never”.
Religion, although a declining force in Northern Ireland as everywhere, is still a factor, with the Calvinist belief in a Protestant “elect” who are going to heaven surviving in many evangelical churches. David Porter, a Presbyterian by upbringing, now lives and works in London as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s chief of staff. He is unusual in having been a united Irelander since his teens. “People don’t realise how much anti-Catholicism and fear of the other is preached. Two things drag us back: that and middle-class morality. The failure of the leadership of the Orange Order to give leadership is appalling. It is bad for Christianity … The idea of being God’s chosen people is actually a heresy. The glory of God could be realised in a united Ireland as much as in Northern Ireland. God is more interested in good neighbourliness.” He believes that unionists are “on the wrong side of history” in this twenty-first century.
They are also on the wrong side of history when it comes to remembering atrocities. Bloody Sunday in Derry, Ballymurphy in Belfast and Loughinisland in Co Down have been endlessly commemorated and investigated, their victims championed and the British security forces involved excoriated. When did anybody last make a TV programme or write an investigative article about the IRA’s attacks on the La Mon hotel, the village of Claudy, the workers at Kingsmill and Teebane returning from their places of employment, or the Enniskillen war memorial? The parents of sisters Joan Anderson and Margaret Veitch were killed in the 1987 Enniskillen bombing. Anderson says she has spent her life since “in just utter despair and crying”. Veitch says: “The British government has done nothing for us British citizens that lived in hell for thirty-five years. It was a slaughter match around Fermanagh and right around the border. Those twelve victims in Fermanagh are every bit as important as the Bloody Sunday victims.” Thirty-four years on the families of those victims are still waiting for a satisfactory memorial to their loved ones, one containing “a clear statement that the IRA had murdered them”.
The poet Jean Bleakney comes from a Fermanagh family, although she grew up partly in Newry. She has terrible memories of what Newry was like for its Protestant minority in the early years of the Troubles. She showed McKay an opinion column in the nationalist Irish News which referred to how Protestant businesses had “disappeared” from the town. One grocer’s shop, formerly owned by Robert Mitchell, was now the columnist’s favourite Chinese takeaway. What he didn’t say was that Mitchell, a sixty-nine-year-old Orangeman, had been shot by the IRA in front of his two elderly sisters in 1977. “Not a word about this. I just felt, dear God, our stories are just going to go unrecorded and forgotten.”
Playwright Stacey Gregg moves between Belfast, Dublin and London. “I feel uneasy when people mock working-class Protestants – it shows a poverty of empathy. There’s a flavour of condescension.” She is gay, a Belfast working class girl who went to Cambridge University, an outsider, “a restless iconoclast”, drawn as a writer to what is “new, unsettled, shifting, out on the edge, or beyond it”. “I hate theatre that is well-behaved, that tells a liberal audience what they already think. I’m always sniffing after the subversive,” she says. She thinks most of the North’s Protestant privilege is “essentially gone or going, but the residual entitlement remains, and can become brittle and defensive. I became aware that I’d inherited some of this, and part of going away was to dismantle it; yet in the same way I’m sensitive to power hierarchies because of my queer antennae, so this bizarre Protestant entitlement helps me understand why some behave as they do; how unless you are given the tools to identify and scrutinise, it can take root and solidify into something very unattractive.”
One suspects that Susan McKay empathises with Stacey Gregg. She too is an outsider: a left-wing woman from a Northern Protestant background living in the Republic, whose writings should have been educating us about the North in an august organ like The Irish Times on a daily basis for many years. It is a tribute to McKay’s skills as a journalist and interviewer that in this fine book she wins the trust of members of a community that is notoriously untrusting and wary of outsiders, and as a result produces some startlingly honest and insightful testimonies. One wonders if Northern Catholics would be quite so outspoken and unsparing in their criticisms of their own people ‑ I think not.
McKay’s qualities as an observer and commentator are the key to her achievement in offering a uniquely illuminating glimpse into a much misunderstood, belittled and even reviled community. Her own Derry Protestant background helps, as does her flinty integrity (in one potentially hostile setting she is seen as “hard but fair”), which is much valued in the straight-talking Protestant North. Even her sparky (and occasionally spiky) feminism must have been useful for drawing out the testimonies of some of the impressive “ordinary” women she talks to.
There is much richness in this book which cannot be adequately covered in a review like this. It brings out the humanity and complexity of Northern Protestants in a way that is extremely rare. Traditional Irish republicans, for all their soft talk, have tended for a hundred years and more to dismiss these stubborn people, with their proud Protestantism and old-fashioned Britishness, as a lesser breed of human beings. They have overlooked and ignored them in a belief that they have no real agency in Irish history, which they see as a centuries-old struggle between the British imperialist overlord and Ireland’s noble anti-colonial fighters, a struggle which they believe they are now finally winning. McKay’s marvellously thought-provoking exploration is a necessary and powerful antidote to that simplistic view.
Andy Pollak was founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh and is a former Irish Times journalist in Belfast and Dublin. He is the co-author of Seamus Mallon: A Shared Home Place (2019). He is from a Northern Presbyterian background.