Letter from Virginia: a time is coming when Ulster Protestants will have to be brave and smart

I have just returned from a stay in the US state of Virginia, mostly in the town of Lexington in the county of Rockbridge. Rockbridge is one of the two American counties which claim the highest proportion of inhabitants descended from the 250,000 Ulster Presbyterians who settled in the USA in the 18th century.

To borrow W.B.Yeats’ phrase about another kind of Irish Protestant, these were “no petty people”. They have provided America with no fewer than 17 presidents, from Andrew Jackson to George W.Bush; military greats like John Paul Jones, Ulysses S. Grant and ‘Stonewall’ Jackson; business titans like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller; frontiersmen like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett; and writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Washington Irving.

The so-called ‘Scotch-Irish’ (named because they were Scottish ‘planters’ in Ulster from 1610 onwards who left for America after 1717 because of economic depression, rack-renting and religious persecution) were notable, in particular, for their role in spearheading migration into the uncharted territories south and west of Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas. In his book The Winning of the West, future president Theodore Roosevelt wrote:

‘That these Irish Presbyterians were a bold and hardy race is proved by their at once pushing past the settled regions, and plunging into the wilderness as the leaders of the white advance. They were the first and last set of immigrants to do this; all others have merely followed in the wake of their predecessors. But, indeed, they were fitted to be Americans from the very start; they were kinsfolk of the Covenanters; they deemed it a religious duty to interpret their own Bible, and held for a divine right the election of their own clergy. For generations their whole ecclesiastic and scholastic systems had been fundamentally democratic.’

These adventurous and combative people were no friends of the native Americans. They were determined to seize the rich lands of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and beyond. Many of them became famous (now more likely to be infamous) as Indian fighters. James G. Leyburn, author of the authoritative modern work on the Scotch-Irish, called them ‘quick-tempered, impetuous, inclined to work by fits and starts, reckless, too much given to drinking. No contemporary observer praised them as model farmers.’¹

However, when it came to providing warriors for the American Revolution and War of Independence, they were ‘the very backbone of Washington’s army’. Another historian described them as ‘rebellious against anything that in their eyes bore the resemblance of injustice, we find these men readiest among the ready on the battlefields of the Revolution. If they had their faults, a lack of patriotism or of courage was not among the number. Amongst them were to be found men of education, intelligence and virtue.’ They showed themselves to be able soldiers: ‘rough, ingenious, adaptable, ready to endure hardship.’

Because of their Calvinist religion, these were conservative revolutionaries. They may have embodied the American values of individualism, adventure and risk-taking, but once they settled in a place like the Valley of Virginia their old-fashioned, Bible-believing Scottish Presbyterianism (and its ministers) led, in Leyburn’s words, to ‘stability, viable institutions, community control of morality, amenities of social intercourse, decency and order, the worth of tradition.”

There is now no more settled place in the US than Lexington, Virginia: a prosperous town of 7,000 people. It has two universities (the Presbyterians, with their emphasis on literacy so as to read the Bible, were also in the lead when it came to setting up schools and universities): the Virginia Military Institute, among whose graduates is George C. Marshall, chief of staff of US forces in World War Two and creator of Marshall Aid to reconstruct Europe in the aftermath of that war; and Washington and Lee, once presided over by Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate forces in the American Civil War. It has numerous well-attended churches, lots of handsome old houses and a large population of retired people. Both Robert E. Lee and fellow Confederate general Stonewall Jackson are buried here.

Despite its Confederate past, Lexington is proud of its commitment to racial equality and local democracy. Another graduate of Virginia Military Institute is Jonathan Daniels, seminarian, civil rights activist and Anglican martyr, who was shot dead in Alabama in 1965 by a white extremist vigilante while trying to shield a 17 year old black girl. On my first afternoon in the town I was in the audience at a public discussion at Washington and Lee between its black professor of history, who had started in the university as a 19 year old janitor, and a young white Methodist minister who was a descendant of Robert E. Lee, about racism and his ancestor’s white supremacist beliefs, which he called “American’s original sin.”

That evening I attended a meeting of the town’s planning commission in a local school, listening to arguments for and against its residents being allowed to keep chickens in their backyards. The commission, made up of local citizens (including my friend John Driscoll, founding director of the formerly Armagh-based and cross-border International Centre for Local and Regional Development), heard from a dozen people for and against – including a 12 year old girl – before making a recommendation to the town council. It was a civilised, tolerant, occasionally sharp-tongued exchange that was an admirable example of local democracy in action.

It all made me think of my Presbyterian home place, Northern Ireland, where  democracy (with exceptions at a very local level) is currently suspended, and where inter-community relations (our version of race relations) are once again turning toxic. It made me wonder what the courageous Ulster pioneers who were so crucial to the birth and expansion of the American nation would have made of the present situation in the North, 21 years after the Good Friday Agreement held out a brief, fragile hope of peace, prosperity and reconciliation.

My thoughts led me to three conclusions. Firstly, Brexit has shown once again how the political leadership of Ulster Unionism has an uncanny ability to get it wrong. Rather than identify with the British mainstream, which favours as soft an exit as possible from the European Union, the DUP opted to line up alongside the small group of hopeless reactionaries in favour of crashing out without a deal. Now that a soft Brexit is the most probable outcome following the six month extension of Britain’s EU membership, the largest unionist party needs to get back urgently to the business of restoring devolved power-sharing government at Stormont. Perhaps under a new leader like Jeffrey Donaldson it will be able to find enough generosity within its fearful soul to give way on the relatively marginal issues – the Irish language and marriage equality – that blocked agreement 14 months ago.

Secondly, if it can’t be generous, the DUP should at least realise that unionism’s self-preservation depends on it working day and night to persuade the North’s Catholics that for the foreseeable future their best interests continue to lie as part of the UK. This will not be an easy task, given the disillusion with the Brexit disaster and with the DUP’s record in the post-2007 partnership arrangements among many in that community. Unionism has already lost its majority in Stormont. In the foreseeable future it will almost certainly lose its demographic majority. It only has a few short years to show the wisdom and generosity required to make Northern Ireland a ‘shared home place’ (the title of a forthcoming memoir by Seamus Mallon) before the stark facts of population change take that opportunity out of its hands.

Thirdly, an extremely difficult and historic turning point may be approaching which will require it to think hard about some kind of accommodation with the Republic. That state, led by the ultra-pragmatic and diplomatically skilled Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, is open for such an accommodation. Varadkar has made clear on a number of occasions his opposition to forcing Northern Protestants into a united Ireland through a narrow majority in a Border Poll. Equally, he has ruled out any coalition with Sinn Fein in a future government in Dublin. His government’s tough stance on the backstop to prevent a hard border was necessary to defend peace and prosperity on the island of Ireland (I fully accept that now, given the chaos and incompetence in London, having earlier been critical of its unwavering line).

Once that issue is settled – as I believe it will be as part of agreement based on or around a new UK-EU customs union – he will be free to turn his attention to the North. That will be the time for a courageous unionist leader to open a back channel to the Taoiseach and his government, perhaps around a proposal for an eventual confederal Ireland incorporating a new form of half-British province in the North. But I won’t be holding my breath.

Would those pragmatic Presbyterians of 18th century Virginia have approved of such an approach? I don’t know. They were smart deal-makers as well as brave frontier people. And it will take immense reserves of smartness, as well as bravery, to ensure that the next phase of Irish history is not another collapse into renewed violence.

¹  The Scotch-Irish: a Social History (University of North Carolina, 1962)

This entry was posted in General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism, Views from abroad. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Letter from Virginia: a time is coming when Ulster Protestants will have to be brave and smart

  1. “Scotch Irish”,,,,,, term invented by anti Catholic bigots who feared being identified as Irish, and, therefore ‘catholic’ so much that they invented the term. In the 1980’s the descendants of the bigots who remained in Ireland tried to whitewash even the word ‘Irish’ out of their heritage and invented the term ‘Ulster Scots’

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