What happened to the North’s Progressive Presbyterians?

My summer reading in recent weeks has been a fascinating book called Dissenting Voices: Recovering the Irish Progressive Presbyterian Tradition1, by the former head of the Simon Community in Northern Ireland, Roger Courtney. It features short biographies of 300 ‘progressive Presbyterians’ from the north of Ireland over the past four centuries.

Courtney, like me, is from that freethinking, left-of-centre Presbyterian tradition which has largely disappeared in the past 50 years as Northern Irish society and politics have become more polarised than ever between the extremes of unionism/loyalism and nationalism/republicanism. I think this is a real tragedy for the cause of non-sectarian and progressive political thinking (defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary as “favouring or implementing rapid progress or social reform”) in Ireland.

This volume contains a treasure trove of democratic, liberal, radical, socialist, feminist and strongly anti-authoritarian voices. It is an enlightening corrective to the narrow and fearful pieties of much present day Presbyterianism and its usual political expression, Ulster Unionism. However the great majority of these refreshing voices are almost totally unknown today.

Of course the ‘men of 98’ are here: Henry Joy McCracken, William Drennan, Jemmy Hope, Samuel Neilson et al. That radical United Irishmen tradition was clearly still alive well into the mid-late 19th century, as evidenced by the hundreds of Presbyterian ministers who were active in the Tenant Right movement – demanding fair rents, fixity of tenure, free sale and tenant ownership – from the 1840s to the 1870s.

Take1850: in that post-famine year Rev. John Rutherford told a monster meeting of 7,000 people in his home town of Banbridge that it was time for “an oppressed and poverty-stricken people” to rise up and abolish “the white tenant slavery of the North of Ireland.” Rev. Nathaniel Brown from Limavady led a Northern delegation of 10 Presbyterian ministers and four Catholic priests to set up the National Tenant League. Rev. John Rogers from Comber, Co Down, told a meeting in Kerry: “Presbyterian Ulster is not Orange. Presbyterianism is incompatible with, and destructive of, Orangeism. Orangeism is Toryism, and the genius of Presbyterianism is utterly antagonistic to such a despotic creed.”

Then there was the small but significant number of Presbyterians who joined the Home Rule and Land League struggles in the 1870s and 1880s. People like Rev. Isaac Nelson from Belfast, who ministered in Donegall Street before becoming a Parnellite MP for Mayo; James Bryce Killen from Kells, Co Antrim, a co-founder of the Land League with Michael Davitt; John Ferguson from Belfast, a close friend of Davitt’s and leader of the Home Rule movement in Scotland; and John Pinkerton from Ballymoney, who was MP for Galway City for 14 years.

The third group highlighted are the people from a Presbyterian background who played an important role in the development of socialism, trade unionism and women’s rights in Ireland in the early and mid-20th century. These ranged from Christian socialist ministers like Harold Rylett, Albert McElroy and Arthur Agnew; through working class trade unionists such as Jack Beattie (one of the leaders of the 1932 Outdoor Relief movement which united Protestants and Catholics in a successful campaign to force the Stormont government to double its miserly payments to the destitute unemployed), Alexander Bowman, Victor Halley, Bonar Thompson, Billy McMullen (one of the founders of the left-wing Republican Congress in the 1930s), Harry Midgley, Jack McGougan and Harold Binks; to suffragists like Isabella Tod, Elizabeth Bell and Elizabeth McCracken (who helped burn down five unionist-owned buildings after Edward Carson reneged on his promise to include the franchise for women in the establishment of a Northern Ireland parliament).

Finally there are the people – particularly in the last century – who have given the lie to the claim that the Ulster Presbyterian tradition has produced no poets and writers.This long list includes poets like W.R.Rodgers and Robert Greacen; playwrights like Gerald MacNamara (Harry Morrow), Rutherford Mayne and John Boyd; and novelists like Helen Waddell and Sam Hanna Bell.

Presbyterianism is still the largest denomination in Northern Ireland. But the once powerful voice of radical Presbyterianism has been largely stilled. The long, seemingly irreversible movement to the conservative right, starting with the rise of Ulster Unionism in opposition to Home Rule and ending with the fundamentalism of Rev. Ian Paisley and the DUP, has seen to that.

Presbyterians these days seem largely unconcerned that, along with their fellow Unionists of other Protestant denominations, they are counted among the world’s most reactionary ‘frontier’ communities: the whites of South Africa; the Southern whites of the USA; the Israeli right.

But in this new, relatively peaceful era – albeit with sectarianism entrenched in the North’s institutional structures by the Belfast Agreement – is it wishful thinking to wonder if a renewal of this progressive element of Northern Protestantism might be contemplated? Presbyterians’ historic commitment to democratic structures, as reflected in their church governance; their former championing of civil and religious liberties; their now largely forgotten identification with those groups who because of poverty or oppression did not have a voice in society (which for several hundred years included Presbyterians); their promotion of tolerance and reconciliation at home and abroad: 150 years ago these were characteristic of many Irish Presbyterians. Is it impossible that this attractive radicalism might be re-discovered by a new generation of younger people from this important Protestant tradition?

There are a very few politicians, religious and community leaders – people like Naomi Long and Duncan Morrow of the Alliance Party, Rev. John Dunlop and the late David Stevens, the surgeon John Robb and Baroness May Blood and Jackie Redpath in the Shankill Road area – who continue to personify the radical, dissenting tradition of Irish Presbyterianism. Their congregations and communities – “terrified of Irishness” in Michael Longley’s phrase – have to find new ways of asserting that most fundamental Presbyterian virtue, independence of mind, so that they can end their economic, cultural and psychological dependence on ‘the Mainland’ and engage in the difficult task of learning again to play their part as a valued, if uniquely different, group of people who live on the island of Ireland.

1Dissenting Voices: Rediscovering the Irish Progressive Presbyterian tradition. Ulster Historical Foundation 2013.

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