As someone from a Northern Protestant background happily resident in Dublin, I know there is little or no point in trying to persuade my co-religionists that they should agree to do away with the border and become part of my society. I may have the nicest Irish house in the world, but the truth is that the vast majority of Northern Protestants and unionists want to continue to live in their British houses, however uncaring and untrustworthy their landlords are.
However for the purpose of provoking a little thinking (and because so many Northern unionists are still woefully ignorant about the South), I am going to argue in this column that in 2015 the Republic of Ireland is a good place for Protestants to live. Ireland, in the words of former Irish Labour Party leader Ruairi Quinn, is now a “post-Catholic secular republic”. The old Roman Catholic Church which they so feared is a shadow of its former self. Priestly vocations have collapsed, graphically illustrated by the dramatically shrinking lists on the graduation boards at St Patrick’s seminary in Maynooth. One rarely sees a priest’s collar or a nun’s habit in the street these days. Some might say that one of the final nails in the coffin of old-fashioned, priest-ridden Irish Catholicism was the extraordinary ‘Yes’ vote – against the instructions of any bishop who was brave enough to oppose it – in the marriage equality referendum in May.
Anti-Britishness, one of the hallmarks of political and popular debate when I first moved to Dublin in the early 1970s, has all but disappeared. Indeed opinion polls show that young people in particular feel they have more in common with the English than they do with the Northern Irish of whatever religious complexion.
Garret Fitzgerald used to say that Irish society had changed more rapidly than any other society in Western Europe in recent times. Nearly 10% of the population are now foreign-born, and while the influx of Poles has served to swell some Catholic congregations, immigration from the US, Africa and other regions has often done the same for Protestant churches.
The Church of Ireland and other Protestant churches are now growing again, helped both by immigrants and Catholics often disillusioned by a lack of spiritual and moral leadership (most scandalously by child-abusing priests) in the majority church. I would estimate that around three quarters of the worshippers at my own Unitarian Church in central Dublin are from an Irish Catholic background. Senior Church of Ireland figures such as the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral and the head of the Church of Ireland College of Education are former Catholics.
Irish Catholicism is itself becoming more ‘Protestant’, with far more emphasis on liberty of the individual conscience and participation by grass roots members than in the previously authoritarian institutional church. What used to be dismissed scornfully by conservative Catholics in the 1980s as ‘a la carte’ Catholicism is now what many people practice: Mass attendance along with the pill; confession along with divorce; gay marriage along with the Eucharist.
In politics, the kind of kowtowing to the Catholic hierarchy that went on in the days of Eamon de Valera, John A. Costello and Sean MacBride is now utterly unthinkable. In 2011, in an unprecedented attack by an Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny accused the Vatican of downplaying the clerical rape and torture of children in the Cloyne diocese in Cork to protect the institutional church’s power and reputation. Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore followed this by closing the Irish embassy to the Vatican as a cost-cutting measure (although it has since reopened as a one-woman mission).
These days there are a significant number of high profile Southern Irish people from a Protestant background, some of them icons of Irish modernity: Bono in rock music, Katie Taylor in sport, Chief Justice Susan Denham in the law, Graham Norton in broadcasting and David Norris in sexual politics. Two cabinet ministers – Jan O’Sullivan and Heather Humphreys – are Protestants (twice the number of Protestant women ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive).
As we approach the centenary of 1916, the role of Protestants in the struggle for Irish independence is being re-evaluated in a more inclusive fashion. In his recent book Vivid Faces, the eminent Oxford-based historian Roy Foster (himself a Southern Protestant) has brought to life fascinating Protestant nationalists, republicans and radicals such as Rosamund Jacob, Cesca Trench, Kathleen Lynn, Alice Milligan, Darrell Figgis and Bulmer Hobson. The guns smuggled for the Irish Volunteers through Howth and Kilcoole were brought in by the Protestant yachtsmen Erskine Childers and Conor O’Brien. The historian Martin Maguire, who has written extensively about Southern Protestant history and culture, has identified over 80 men and women from that tradition who were active in the War of Independence.
A 2005 study of society North and South¹, based on social survey data from European Values Surveys, found that the two societies shared a great deal. By European standards they both enjoyed high levels of income, welfare provision, individual life satisfaction and social capital. They were both stable democracies governed by similar legal systems which had withstood the tests of time. The old divisions based on religion seemed to be fading as both societies were edging – and the authors emphasised the qualified word ‘edging’ – towards a more secular, post-Christian future. At the same time both societies continued to share more conservative views on family and sexual morality than most other parts of Europe (the May referendum may indicate that this has now changed in the South).
None of the above is meant to persuade my unionist readers to give up their Britishness – I wouldn’t be so foolish. However if I could do two small things I would be content: firstly, to persuade them that the Republic of Ireland isn’t such an alien place these days – in many ways it is an open-minded, tolerant and liberal society (indeed strikingly more so than the North); and secondly, it wouldn’t do them any harm to admit that they too have a little bit of Irishness in their make-up and it might be interesting, at the very least, to visit the South to explore that small part of themselves. The Progressive Unionist Party leader Billy Hutchinson (a former UVF prisoner) puts it well when he says: “We have to recognise that the Irish Republic has a very special relationship with Northern Ireland. It’s not just a foreign state. We were brothers in a previous time. Partition was like a split in a marriage: one brother went with the father and one went with the mother. We need to recognise that the Republic is not a priest-ridden or an IRA-ridden state. We have to get beyond that. There is a different political dispensation in the Republic now and it’s not to our disadvantage.”
- Conflict and Consensus: A study of values and attitudes in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, by Tony Fahey, Bernadette Hayes and Richard Sinnott.