The anti-colonialist bullies versus the reconciliation persuaders

Gerry Adams is a majoritarian bully. He showed his true colours in a letter to the Irish Times last month when he wrote that the Good Friday Agreement “allows for Irish reunification in the context of a democratic vote: 50% + 1. I believe we can secure a greater margin, but ultimately that will be for the electorate. That’s what democracy is about.”

As Fintan O’Toole wrote in his column in the same paper a fortnight later, this is not what democracy should be about: “that kind of crude, tribal majoritarianism is precisely what the Belfast Agreement is meant to finish off.” He went on to quote the new Article 3 of the Constitution, with its emphasis on the desire of the Irish nation “in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions…” Instead of bullying 900,000 unionists into a united Ireland most of them want no part of, those of us who believe in eventual unity based on friendship and harmony, can serve that cause best “by working to create a Republic of equals that might be worth joining”.

O’Toole also points out that the enthusiasm of people in the Republic for unity (such as it is) is not unconditional. “To put it bluntly (as no one ever does), Southerners have no interest in inheriting a political wreck, or becoming direct participants in a gory sequel: Troubles III, the Orange strikes back. They will not vote for a form of unity that merely creates an angry and alienated Protestant minority within a bitterly contested new state.”¹

The new young SDLP deputy leader, Nichola Mallon, put it equally bluntly last week. She warned that getting a 50% + 1 vote for unity in a premature border poll would be “an absolute recipe for disaster” and would “erupt in violence”.²

Adams and Sinn Fein do not care how violently born or bitterly contested a ‘united’ Irish state is so long as they get it. What they want essentially is to turn the tables on the unionists. Adams is clever enough rarely to let the bully behind his emollient mask slip: the most famous recent occasion he did was his November 2014 speech in Enniskillen when he talked about having to “break these bastards” through demanding equality with unionists, and that this was the “Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy.”

Once there is the thinnest of thin majorities for unity, the unionists – top majoritarian bully dogs for so long- will just have to suck it and suffer. You only have to read the nascent triumphalism of many republican-minded blogs in the North to see what is coming: ‘the boot’s going to be on the other foot soon’ and Tiocfaidh ár lá amárach. In the bitterly divided North, the zero-sum game of winner takes all is still what it’s all about politically. Interestingly, the late Martin McGuinness sometimes did not share this view, telling BBC journalist Mark Carruthers in his 2013 book Alternative Ulsters, that he was “not one of those people who works on the basis that whenever there’s one more of us than there are of them, we’re going to have a united Ireland.” 

In the Republic I see the political class divided into two broad groups on this issue: what I call the ‘anti-colonialist bullies’, led by Sinn Fein with some old-fashioned Fianna Failers and one hard left party (People Before Profit), who believe that the Northern conflict is just the final phase of the age-old struggle against the British occupation of Ireland; and the ‘reconciliation persuaders’, who include Fine Gael, ‘new’ Fianna Fail, Labour, the Greens, and the other hard left party, Solidarity (since when did trotskyists agree on anything!), who believe the key is finding a way for people on this island to live in peace and harmony (or working class solidarity) together. As an old social democrat, it pains me to say that the British left, and notably the Corbynite wing now in charge of the British Labour Party, are firmly in the bullies camp.

At the British Irish Association conference earlier this month, Bob Collins, who as former RTE director general and chief executive of the NI Equality Authority is one of those very rare senior public figures who knows both Ireland and Northern Ireland intimately, spoke as follows: “For those nationalists in the Republic (and not everyone in the Republic is a 32 county nationalist) who desire a united Ireland, the first step on any road that may conceivably lead to the achievement of their goal is to get to know unionists, to come to understand their Britishness, to recognise and value their traditions and, gradually, to seek to persuade them, by their words and by their deeds, that they have in mind a future democracy that would respect and protect Britishness with the same fervour and commitment as they would respect and protect Irishness. That is not the work of a referendum campaign, nor of five years leading up to a referendum. It is the work of at least a generation. And that is only the beginning. Not to realise that is not to want a united Ireland that would be worth having.” That for me is a perfect description of what I would call ‘reconciliation persuasion.’

Coincidentally the Irish Times ran a story earlier this month about a bullying culture in Sinn Fein in the Republic, with 10 local councillors having resigned or being in dispute with the party amid claims of bullying, top-down diktats and whispering campaigns.³   Younger people joining Sinn Fein for idealistic reasons often find that this is no ordinary democratic party – it retains much of the ethos and behaviour of the old IRA Army Council-ruled party it was during the Northern ‘troubles’. This is one reason why so many politicians in the Republic – notably Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin – are so wary of talk of future coalition arrangements with the ‘Shinners’.

The Good Friday Agreement is barely beginning the huge task of bringing two fundamentally opposed political identities, unionism and nationalism, together – the excruciating business of inter-party talks to get the Northern institutions restored shows that only too clearly. However that was not the agreement’s immediate objective. Its primary aim was to remove violence from the equation. That to a large extent it has done, which is a huge achievement in itself.

Reconciliation between the historically divided communities (the agreement’s other aim) remains a utopian dream.  A wise non-unionist friend who has closely observed the peace process puts it this way:

“The impulse to victory remains present on both sides. Republicans and nationalists asking unionism for a conversation around a united Ireland at this time is a reflection of that impulse. It is not about reconciliation. The most clear-cut way to promote reconciliation is to continue the task of making the Good Friday Agreement institutions work for the benefit of all, including the institutions within Northern Ireland. The truth is that both sides regard Northern Ireland as their home place. What has not yet been achieved is a true recognition by either side that Northern Ireland is a shared home place for all the communities there.”

  1. Irish Times, Gerry Adams Letter to the Editor, 3 August; ‘United Ireland will not be based on 50 per cent plus one’ (Fintan O’Toole column), 15 August
  3. Irish Times, ‘Sinn Fein faces another claim of a toxic, bullying culture’, 8 September


Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein | 2 Comments

Among the poetic and pugnacious people of South Armagh

Last summer, during my Belfast to Dublin walk, I spent two days walking through south Armagh: over the Cooley mountains into Ravensdale, then across Slieve Gullion to Mullaghbane and Forkhill and over the border into Dundalk.

It was the most interesting and eye-opening part of my journey. The Ring of Gullion area is one of the most beautiful, geologically important, culturally rich, historically strategic and yet least visited places in the east of Ireland. The reason is obvious: for at least five centuries this has been an area of conflict and banditry, one in which some of the most bloodily contested events in Irish history have taken place. But it is also a place of warm-hearted people and wonderful mythology, folklore, poetry and music.

A local  historian I met in Forkhill talked about the Slighe Mhidhluachra, the great north-south highway that passed through south Armagh from early Christian times, and which was “the channel for all movement from one part of Ireland to the other – every army had to to pass up and down it, from Cuchulainn fighting Queen Maeve to William heading for the Battle of the Boyne. It was a particularly important battleground in the first decade of the 17th century which marked one of the key turning points in Irish history: in 1600 Hugh O’Neill drove back Mountjoy from the Gap of the North; in 1601 Mountjoy returned and built Moyry Castle; in 1607 came the flight of the earls, O’Neill and O’Donnell; and in 1609 was the first Plantation of Ulster”.

In 1989, nearly four centuries later, Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, the most senior police officer to be killed during the modern ‘troubles’, and Superintendent Bob Buchanan, a worshipper in my grandfather’s old Reformed Presbyterian congregation in County Antrim, were killed in the same Gap of the North near Moyry Castle, shot dead in an ambush by the IRA, whom the RUC believed had been tipped off by a ‘mole’ in Dundalk garda station.

South Armagh is much loved by geologists and archaeologists for the richness of its geological formations and prehistoric monuments. Geologists believe Slieve Gullion, the 1,900 foot mountain at its heart, is the centre of what remains of a large extinct volcano, with the peak being the magma (the hardened core of formerly molten rock) and the surrounding hills, forming almost a complete circle, being the remains of the volcanic crater. “The circular motif was very strong in megathic art and rituals, “ says Gabriel Cooney, professor of archaeology at UCD (who joined me on this part of the walk). “Today, when you’re driving up on the motorway from Dublin, it is noticeable that Slieve Gullion appears like a triangular shape, a pyramid – sometimes with a band of mist around its base – and that must been very striking to people in prehistoric times.”

We also visited one of those magnificent, almost completely neglected ancient monuments which Ireland – and particularly the border region – seems to specialise in. In the townland of Edenappa, we walked across a field full of cowpats and through a muddy gap into an overgrown meadow in the middle of which was the Kilnasaggart Stone. This eight foot sculpted granite pillar, probably put up around 700 and marked with one large and ten smaller crosses, is the oldest dateable inscribed Christian monument in Ireland. The south-east face of the pillar bears an inscription in Irish that Ternoc, a Christian hermit who was related to the great Magenis and Macartan families, put this place under the protection of Peter the Apostle.

I experienced a feeling of peace while contemplating this ancient stone in the July morning sunshine that I can only explain by a sense of this place having been a centre of prayer and spiritual contemplation for many centuries. But it is shamefully neglected by both the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and the Historic Monuments Council of Northern Ireland, probably because it is so close to the border. How many people speeding along the main Dublin-Belfast motorway two miles away know that this marvellous and unique Christian site is only a few minutes away by car? How many visitors does a site which in continental Europe would be a major tourist attraction receive every year? The Tourist Board has no way of measuring the number of visitors to this forgotten monument in a muddy field.

I walked on towards Mullaghbane, the home of my friend Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, sean-nós singer, composer and author of the acclaimed book A Hidden Ulster: People, songs and traditions of Oriel, about the rare songs in Irish from Armagh and Louth, with their historical background, biographies of the poets who composed them, the collectors who collected them and the scribes who wrote them down. Many of the songs were written by fine – although now largely forgotten – 17th and 18th century poets like Peadar O Doirnin, Seamus Dall Mac Cuarta, Art Mac Cumhaigh and Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna (who wrote ‘The Yellow Bittern’).

South Armagh and north Louth were culturally rich Irish-speaking areas up to the mid-19th century but a hundred years later the language had all but disappeared there. There was a long tradition of educated local people called scribes writing down stories, legends, poems and songs on parchment and paper to preserve the wealth of the culture they loved. Much of this work would have been paid for by members of the genty – many of them Protestants, men like Robert McAdam in Belfast, Arthur Brownlow in Lurgan and Samuel Coulter in Dundalk – who would have collected and preserved the manuscripts in their own houses.

Ní Uallacháin went on to tell me about the little-known period in the early 19th century when the Catholic Church opposed the Irish language. The (Protestant) Irish Society was teaching the Bible through Irish to the people of the area at that time, and employing educated and literate Catholics to do it. “The scribes did not see their work as proselytising in any sense but simply teaching people to read. However it caused consternation among the Catholic clergy and their way of handling it was to instil fear in the people about the language – it was now a threat to their souls. It also affected later generations of song and folklore collectors whom people assumed were proselytisers as well. Local people became afraid to speak Irish and this was extremely detrimental to the language in this area, and scribal activity all but ceased. So the reasons for the sharp decline in Irish in this area from the mid-19th century onwards were, along with the Famine and the identification of the language with poverty, the system of National Schools and the influence of the Church.”

Ní Uallacháin finds “a tremendous enthusiasm and high regard for the language here now. In many ways it was easier to bring up my children speaking Irish than in places across the border. There is a love for it even though it is not taught in the schools except spasmodically here and there. When I came here I was the only mother speaking Irish to my children – there are at least a dozen families doing that now. I can’t ever see it coming back as a community language, but it’s certainly not going away and it’s undergoing something of a resurgence.”

I spent that night camping out on the site of the former British army base in Forkhill. Before I retired for the night I met a group of local people interested in the area’s history in the local pub. To say they are proud of south Armagh and its history is to understate the obvious: they are passionately, even fiercely, energised by it, nursing its many trials and exclusions with a huge sense of grievance.

One local historian in the group voiced the widely-held belief that there had been a conspiracy since the 17th century to portray south Armagh as an outlandish place of outlaws and murderers, with a one-sided version of history that emphasised the violence of the native people, and made little or no mention of the theft of their land and centuries of oppression by colonist ‘planters.’ This kind of rewriting of history had been constantly reinforced until the most recent ‘troubles’ period, when Merlyn Rees – Northern Ireland Secretary in the mid-1970s – dubbed south Armagh the “bandit country”.

However Rees was only the latest in a long line of politicians, clerics, historians and others to characterise the south-east Ulster borderlands, and south Armagh in particular, in this way. The Maynooth historian Raymond Gillespie writes that by the late 17th century “the tory (i.e. bandit) problem” survived in the Ulster borderlands after it disappeared from most of the rest of Ireland because “the tories could count on local support in areas with no alternative leadership and because the traditions of these areas gave sanction to their actions.”¹ This poor, underdeveloped area of marginal land was caught between the newly colonised territories further north with their improving landlords, better estate management and industrial beginnings, and the historically well-developed Pale to the south. “Similarly the spread of authority of central government, intimately associated with colonisation, left the borderland isolated and apparently more violent than the surrounding area.”

The group in the pub agreed that there was a “siege mentality” in south Armagh and a “Free State mentality” south of the border. One woman explained the former very cogently: “With the creation of the border and the Northern state in the early 1920s, in an area like south Armagh you never felt part of that Northern state and there was nothing in the North to attract you to it. There was also a sense of having been abandoned by the South. You were like an island stuck between two states: one which you had no affinity with and one which had said ‘cheerio’ to you. So there is within south Armagh the mentality of an island people. When I was growing up, the older people may not have been very educated, but they were free thinking people, who didn’t take direction from either north or south.”

And what about the IRA? People in south Armagh don’t like to talk about the role of the Provisional IRA during the ‘troubles’, and this group was no exception. But in his superbly researched book, Bandit Country: The IRA & South Armagh, British journalist Toby Harnden traces the formidable force that was the IRA in south Armagh back to the local branch of the O’Neill family fighting the English in the early 1600s; the highwaymen or ‘rapparees’ haunting the roads in the late 1600s; the Defenders and Ribbonmen clashing with landlords and Orangemen in the 18th and 19th centuries; and to Frank Aiken’s 4th Northern Division of the IRA in 1919-1922, which on one occasion mobilised over 200 men to take over Newtownhamilton village and attack the local police barracks. The same IRA surnames appeared on British security force lists in the 1990s as on government files in the 1920s.

And the most recent version were as formidable as any of their predecessors. A British Army colonel talked with grudging admiration to Harnden about their careful planning and studying of army operating patterns, secure firing positions and well thought out escape routes. A member of the RUC’s specialist anti-terrorist squad in the area said they “stood up and fought and skirmished back in the same way the British Army did. And they’re very hard to overtake when they are doing that.” The double bombing in August 1979 which killed 16 soldiers from the Parachute Regiment at Narrow Water Castle outside Warrenpoint in south Down – the heaviest casualties suffered by the army’s elite regiment in a single attack since the Second World War – was planned by south Armagh IRA man, Tom ‘Slab’ Murphy, now a jailed tax avoider, but then a ruthless and brilliant military tactician who would later become its chief of staff.

By the mid-1990s the IRA in south Armagh had effectively fought the British Army to a standstill. The latter’s helicopters were forced to fly in formations of three to avoid attacks by IRA sniper units using machine guns and large calibre American and Russian sniping rifles. Harnden concludes: “As the August 1994 ceasefire approached, the contrast between the campaign being waged on all fronts in south Armagh and the IRA’s waning efforts elsewhere in Northern Ireland could hardly have been more acute.”

It was little wonder then that the fiercest opposition to the IRA’s ceasefire was in the area. And it was no coincidence that the massive bomb attack in Canary Wharf in London’s docklands, which in February 1996 ended that first ceasefire, was planned, engineered and delivered from south Armagh – like so many such attacks on the British ‘mainland’ in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

However this is not a one-dimensional place. Bernard Boyle, the local accountant who chairs the Forkhill Development Association, believes that there are “quite a few nationalist unionists” even in his locality. “If you had a border poll in the morning you’d find that quite a few of these people are comfortable with their UK status. They wouldn’t vote unionist, but if you drill down into what they believe, you realise they’re quite happy to be British”. Because of poverty and lack of employment local people had got used to depending on the British benefits system which – despite the fact that social benefits in recent years have been higher in the South – they felt might not be there in an all-Ireland state.

Boyle, clearly a man of moderate views, says it is “impossible to overstate the difference between Forkhill now and in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.” The British army presence in this tiny village was overwhelming. They chose an area between two housing estates to build their barracks and, despite only being able to move out in heavily armed patrols, had complete control over the village, including sending radio signals which blanked out television transmission and switching off street lights. A brave attempt to open a fish and chip shop in the 1980s was doomed because of constant army harassment of its customers. “If you didn’t have an errand in Forkhill you didn’t come here after dark because you were guaranteed to be stopped by the army no matter what road you came in, everybody told to get out of the car, everybody’s details taken, the stuff taken out of the boot, and people told bluntly to put it back themselves.”

Unsurprisingly, there was unanimity in the group that Britain leaving the EU – the Brexit vote had happened a fortnight earlier – was an unmitigated disaster and would have a particularly catastrophic impact on a village that was only a few hundred yards from a border which was now due to become Europe’s external frontier. Bernard Boyle pointed out that after many decades of no investment in Forkhill and its hinterland, EU money had come in during the past 20 years in the form of Single Farm Payments and capital grants for farmers, money to improve roads and IT connectivity, and funding for community development. The small business park created by the development association had brought 32 new jobs to a place which until then only had a tiny number of jobs in pubs and shops. 40% of the funding for the business park had come from the part-EU funded International Fund for Ireland.

South Armagh is a strange place for this Northern-born Protestant and Dublin resident, albeit one who was active in the Northern Ireland civil rights movement in the 1960s and is a proud Irish citizen. The fierceness of the republicanism expressed by people like the local historians I spoke to is unsettling. I believe I speak for the great majority of Irish people in that when I see a gunman in a balaclava carrying a high velocity rifle, what I feel is dread and fear, and certainly not admiration (our idea of an admirable Irish soldier is an Irish Army peacekeeper on the way to service with the UN). Yet in three hours of conversation, the violent campaign of the Provisional IRA against the British army, the RUC and the Protestant community – the Kingsmills massacre being the worst example in south Armagh – was not mentioned once. In this community the IRA were viewed by many people as heroes, not to be criticised in front of an outsider.

The Borderlands: Essays on the History of the Ulster-Leinster Border, Raymond Gillespie & Harold O’Sullivan (eds.)

Many thanks to Bernard Boyle and Raymond McCumiskey for gathering local people to meet me and letting me use the Forkhill Women’s Centre to wash and change after my night’s camping.

Posted in General, Northern Ireland | 2 Comments

Northern lessons from a pilgrimage walk in West Cork

Last month my wife Doireann and I went on a three-day walk across the lovely, little known hills of west Cork from Drimoleague (north of Skibbereen), through Kealkill (east of Bantry) to the unique and marvellous pilgrimage spot that is Gougane Barra. I then walked on alone over the heather deserts on the Cork-Kerry border to Kilgarvan near Killarney. In the summer sunlight – and even through the thick mist on the hilltops and the occasional Atlantic shower – this was Ireland at its most magnificent: remote, unspoilt, close to the other world in the intensity of its green stonewalled fields, white sheep, high bogs, cascading waterfalls, rocks and sky. The impression of being close to the spirit world is only strengthened by the multiplicity of standing stones, ring-forts and holy wells in the area.

Christianity came early to West Cork. In the Annals of Innisfallen we are told that Saint Ciarán returned to Cape Clear in 402 AD after studying in Rome and quickly spread the faith throughout the region. Thus the area around Skibbereen and Drimoleague was probably Christian before Patrick came to the north of Ireland 30 years later.

1,500 years ago Finbarr, the patron saint of Cork, walked this way and established a monastery on an island in the lake at Gougane Barra. The remoteness of its location meant it was much used during Penal Law times for people to hear Mass. The 19th century island oratory on the wonderfully eye-pleasing lake is now hugely popular as a wedding venue, particularly as it adjoins one of Ireland’s friendliest and most charming hotels, the Gougane Barra Hotel, presided over by the genial and knowledgeable Neil Lucey and his family.

Our departure point for the walk, the village of Drimoleague – often by-passed by tourists following the better known west Cork coastline – is the home of a remarkable initiative in community-led sustainable tourism. In 11 months in 2008-2009, a small group of farmers, through a mixture of voluntary labour and support from the West Cork Development Partnership, built 12 kilometres of walking paths across the beautiful landscapes between the Ilen River and Mullaghmesha Mountain. By the end of 2009, an unusual cooperative effort by four community groups in Drimoleague, Mealagh, Kealkill and Gougane Barra had led to the 37 kilometre St Finbarr’s Way being opened to pilgrims and other walkers. Each Easter and twice in August large groups of people take the two day ‘reflective walk’ from Drimoleague. Hundreds of others do it individually and in smaller groups, notably on the feast of St Finbarr on 25th September.

One of the key movers behind this explosion of walking routes has been David Ross, who farms 48 acres just north of Drimoleague village at Top of the Rock. Ross is an evangelical Christian, a description which is far more familiar north of the border than in west Cork. He was brought up a Methodist, which had been strong around Drimoleague since the Great Revival of the 1850s, and preached his first sermon at the age of 19.  He then studied for three years at a bible college in north-east England and, although most his fellow students were destined for the foreign missions, he “felt the Lord urging me to return to my own place.”

In 1988  he was touched by tragedy when his first wife Mary, who was from a prominent Presbyterian family in Portadown, was diagnosed with cancer and died at the age of 36 eleven months after giving giving birth to their third child. In the early 1990s he married again – to Elizabeth from County Monaghan – and they had two more children.

In the 1980s the small Methodist church in nearby Bantry had closed, and a decade later Ross and his wife had a vision of  a new independent Christian church in the town. This was to become Bantry Christian Fellowship, “similar to Methodism but not labelled Protestant – a bible believing, real life community” in his words. This now has a thriving Sunday congregation of up to 70 people.

David Ross had known little about St Finbarr and his pilgrimage until the late eighties. He tells the story of how Denny O’Leary from Skibbereen had approached him because “he planned to ride a horse from Skibbereen to Gougane Barra by way of a pilgrim journey, a tradition which his parents had passed down.Would I send him on his way from Top of the Rock with a prayer?”

In 2012 David and Elizabeth Ross sought planning permission to build a walking centre in his grandfather’s old stone-built farmyard, with its superlative view across the Ilen valley to the mountains. They bought seven cosy timber lodges known as camping ‘pods’ which had been invented by a young English engineer who had got the idea from seeing the beehive shape of the Gallarus Oratory during a rain-soaked camping holiday in Kerry. They invested (helped by EU funding) in a splendid walking centre containing bathrooms, kitchen, games room and a large upstairs meeting room. In 2014 the centre was opened by the Fianna Fail politician Eamon O Cuiv TD, Eamon De Valera’s grandson, and a strong supporter of rural community self-help projects. “Now the Top of the Rock is once again a meeting place of joy, activity, laughter and reflection”, says Ross.

There are lessons for the often joyless and unreflecting society that is Northern Ireland in this story of strong and harmonious rural communities and successful local tourism in the south-west. If I had my way, I would bring hundreds of Northern Protestants, conservatives and evangelicals (along with their Catholic neighbours, of course), to spend their holidays in Drimoleague and Kealkill and Gougane Barra, so that they can rediscover the delight and revelation of their Irish Christian heritage: the pre-Reformation tradition of saints and solitude and powerful communion with God that once made Celtic Christianity such a light to the world. And so they can see how West Cork Protestants like David and Elizabeth Ross live in a spirit of enterprise, mutual love of place and communal harmony with their Catholic neighbours. “West Cork is a very open society”, says this 58 year old evangelical Christian farmer and tourism entrepreneur extraordinaire.

For when you strip away the anti-Catholicism of the Orange Order and the marching bands, evangelical Christianity is the best and most enduring element at the heart of Northern Protestant culture. It also thrives in the new, open Republic of Ireland. More of the North’s Protestants should come down and visit the magical seascapes and mountains of west Cork, meet its lovely people, attend Sunday worship at Bantry Christian Fellowship (or perhaps Drimoleague Methodist Church) and learn that for themselves.

They don’t even have to contemplate any penitential pilgrimage across the mountains, although I would strongly recommend that for the more athletic among them (the regularly-spaced bright yellow marker posts and stiles make it particularly easy to follow). For me, the Deelish Cascades walk across fields and along river banks from Top of the Rock to the impressive Castle Donovan (three kilometres there and back) – with its wondrous array of wild flowers, trees and plants, songbirds and river creatures – is simply the most beautiful country walk on the island of Ireland.

Posted in General, Republic of Ireland, The island environment | 1 Comment

Lovely people, close neighbours, parallel universes

A year ago I walked along back roads, hill paths and beaches from Belfast to Dublin to raise money for homeless charities in the two cities. I then sat down and tried to write a book about my experiences. By last spring I had a book-length manuscript which was frankly not very good. So I am leaving it aside for the moment, but dipping into it for the occasional blog or feature article.  And since it is the summer, like most other observers of Northern Ireland I am happy to take a break from its endless, deadlocked politics of narrow ground and narcissism of small difference, and to tell a couple of stories from last year’s walk.

On the third morning I found myself in Dromore, a small town just off the main Belfast-Dublin road in County Down. And because it was a Sunday morning, I went to church – twice. In the Church of Ireland cathedral – founded by St Colman, a Scottish follower of Patrick, over 1500 years ago – I met a local farmer’s wife who had attended the Dublin Masonic Girls School in Ballsbridge in the 1950s, had a son working in the city as an engineer for Wyeth, and declared: “I love Dublin.”

Cheered by this unexpected display of northern Protestant amity for the Irish capital, I then walked across town to the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Rampart Street, which is part of the same denomination as my own Unitarian Church in St Stephen’s Green. Built in 1800, this is a beautiful church, designed on classically simple Presbyterian lines, with the preacher’s pulpit at its centre surrounded by warm wood-panelled pews. Here the minister insisted on taking a special collection for the homeless charities I was walking for, raising over £200, and feeding me tea and cake after the service.

This used to be a congregation that was radical, politically and theologically. In the late 18th century many of its members came from the Kinallen and Dromara areas east of the town towards Ballynahinch, which were strongly in favour of the United Irishmen.  In the mid 19th century one of its members was the young Andrew Malcolm, later to become one of Belfast’s outstanding philanthropists, a doctor in the city’s fever hospital and founder of the Belfast Working Classes Association, who worked himself to an early death, aged 38,  campaigning tirelessly for improved drainage, ventilation, water to every house, street cleaning, public lavatories and strict building controls in the appalling slums that sprang up around that city’s unregulated textile mills.

Until 1980 its minister was Rev Alexander Peaston, a graduate of Oxford and Harvard, and a proud liberal Unitarian. Now, in common with the vast majority of northern Presbyterian churches, it is more narrowly conservative, with a strong Orange element in the congregation (although the Orangemen have been here for many years). But lovely and generous people, provided you steer clear of politics.

That Sunday afternoon I went walking with the charmingly named ‘Down Danderers’ across Slieve Croob,  the group of hills which rises (along with the River Lagan) between Dromara and Ballynahinch, just west of the Mournes. Here on a clear day one can see all nine counties of Ulster, as well as north Leinster, southern Scotland, the Isle of Man and Cumbria. The group walking on this July afternoon was an ecumenical one: Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists and people of no religion at all enjoying the bracing air and the marvellous cross-border views in cheerful harmony.

I then took a side trip to visit the Marian shrine at Slievenaboley. This is a largely forgotten place, a small, lovingly tended shrine high on a 1,000 foot hill which, when one approaches it, is well hidden behind, of all things on a bleak Irish mountainside, an eight foot privet hedge. Forgotten that is by all except a small group of pious Catholics from all over the North who gather there every Sunday afternoon for a prayer vigil. When a Marian apparition happened here in 1954 it caused a sensation in Northern Ireland at a time when the place was dominated by a kind of extreme anti-Catholic Protestantism that most people in Western Europe probably thought had died out in the 19th century. 1954 had been declared a Marian Year by Pope Pius XII. The apparition took place in October of that year at a place called Windy Gap on Slievenaboley (‘mountain of the summer pasture’). The lowland area to the west, stretching through Dromara back to Dromore, was overwhelmingly Protestant, complete with numerous small evangelical churches and mission halls, and the Catholics were largely restricted to the hills.

What happened was that an eight-year-old boy called Seamus Quail was tending cattle on his father’s small hill farm when the Virgin Mary appeared to him. He said she stood on a rocky outcrop on the top of the hill, dressed in blue and white. She then walked down in a circular path to the spot where the shrine to ‘Our Mother of the Hill’ now stands. Seamus is a shy man who does not like to talk about his experience over 60 years ago, but he insists that around 120 people have seen the vision as well as him.

The local Protestants were not impressed at this example of Catholic superstition. The early 1950s was a time of fierce Protestant-Catholic contention, with the Archbishop of Canterbury 12 months before the apparition denouncing “the oppression and denials of just liberties which lie at the door of the Roman Catholic Church”, and commending a booklet which accused Rome of “duplicity, reckless and impertinent propaganda and wholesale exploitation of simple people’s credulity.” Many Protestants in the area objected strongly to a shrine being built and the Rosary being said; worshippers there had to ask for police protection; the pillars that supported the hedge and shrine were painted the red, white and blue colours of the Union Jack, and a flagpole was erected in a Protestant-owned field beside the shrine where to this day the British flag is flown around the 12th of July. Despite this harassment, Seamus Quail says proudly that the Rosary has been said at the shrine every Sunday for the past 63 years. I missed the vigil on my walk through last July but came back a few weeks later to sit in the pouring rain for an hour listening as reverently as I could to the Apostle’s Creed, the Our Father, the Hail Marys, Glory Bes and Glorious Mysteries that make up the Decade of the Rosary.

I came away from that little ceremony feeling sad: sad at the continuing deep gulf of understanding and affection between my conservative fellow Presbyterians in Dromore and – a short few miles away – their neighbours, the devout, old-fashioned Catholics of the Slievenaboley shrine. All lovely people, but living cheek by jowl in mutually uncomprehending parallel universes.

Just as in the 1970s and 1980s when, as a journalist working in Belfast, I was one of the few people who could move safely and comfortably between republican and loyalist areas, once again I felt enormously privileged and fortunate to be able to cross the barriers in this deeply divided society: a northern Protestant who is a happy citizen of the Republic of Ireland, with a County Antrim grandfather who set up his own evangelical gospel hall and a wife whose County Cork grandfather was a travelling Irish language teacher (timire) for the Gaelic League and was interned in 1916 (not forgetting a Czech socialist father along the way). What a sorrow it is that other children from a British-Northern Ireland Protestant background were not as fortunate as I was to be able to come together with their Irish Catholic neighbours to enjoy the cultural, environmental and linguistic richness of this fabulous island of ours.

I ended that Sunday, after a walk along the Lackan Bog Path (near Moneyslane), a gorgeous hidden gem of wetland that is utterly unknown outside this unfashionable corner of County Down, in Vanessa and Russell Drew’s organic farm and bed and breakfast. Here was the inspiration that I had been searching for all day. Vanessa, a striking woman who looks much younger than her 45 years, is a champion bee-keeper and goat-breeder who also keeps sheep, hens and peacocks. Last year she was named Northern Ireland columnist of the year for her gardening column in a local women’s magazine. In her garden, orchard and greenhouse she grows every conceivable fruit and vegetable: from blackcurrants to beetroot, grapes to gooseberries, figs to fennel, artichokes to elderflowers, radishes to rocket to rhubarb.

Vanessa Drew is the kind of person we need in the new Ireland and the new Northern Ireland:  a role model for young people in the resource conscious world we will need to build if humanity is going to survive global warming and environmental degradation. I would make fifth year school students – in the Republic those in Transition Year – do a compulsory module on self-sufficiency involving a visit to a small, largely organic farm like Vanessa’s. For students from the South the fact that they would cross the border in the process would make it an even more valuable learning exercise – imagine that they would actually learn that good things can come out of Northern Ireland! Indeed we should all be beating a path to her Ballyroney Cottage in the heart of unblemished mid-Down, a few poc fadas from the Mournes, to see what the future could hold if we start taking green politics and self-sufficiency seriously – and forget about our obsessions (and that includes mine) with history, religion and national identity for a change!

PS  Sincere thanks to Denis and Honor Stewart for their generous hospitality during my short stay in Dromore.





Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism, The island environment | 2 Comments

The DUP may be paranoid, but we still have to befriend them

It should come as no surprise that beleaguered identity appears to have once again trumped economic well-being in Northern Ireland (for the moment, anyway), as inter-party talks meant to agree a return to power-sharing missed their British government-imposed deadline this week.

To the outsider it must seem inexplicable that the chance to spend the £1 billion (£1.5 billion if one includes flexibility in already allocated spending) package for the North won by the DUP from the Tories earlier in the week in return for propping them up at Westminster, should be squandered because of deadlock over a small number of non-economic issues, notably an Irish language act. But as one senior SDLP negotiator told the Irish Times: “It is about more than an Irish language act, it is about an Irish respect act”. A fundamental problem is that the DUP, like so many unionists, are “terrified of Irishness,” in the words of the poet Michael Longley – and this manifests itself, among other things, in a fear of and scorn for the Irish language (and those who speak it). It doesn’t help that the loudest champions of the language are Sinn Fein, for whom everything is turned into a political weapon to beat the unionists with.

However whether we like it or not, it is an inescapable fact that the Democratic Unionist Party is now central to a solution of Northern Ireland’s problems – and by extension and because of Brexit – Ireland’s problems. This month’s general election saw the effective demise of the once all-powerful Ulster Unionist Party.

The DUP are not easy to love. The vilification of this socially conservative and pro-union party that followed Theresa May’s decision to seek their support – particularly in the British press – was shockingly savage (to our credit, the level of vitriol in the Republic was far lower, with commentators as different as Fergal Keane, Bertie Ahern, Eoghan Harris and Martin Mansergh speaking in the DUP’s defence). There is nothing a left liberal journalist likes more – and I speak as one of them – than to have a righteous blast at a right wing monster raving loony party which is against liberal totems such as abortion, equal marriage for gay people, and tackling climate change. And it is all too easy to reach back into the DUP’s past and dig up examples of the most extraordinary sectarianism and near-racism (as I did in my January blog: ‘The DUP’s bigotry and incompetence bring the house down’).

The truth, as usual, is a bit more complicated. Firstly, Arlene Foster and her colleagues were at pains to stress that issues like abortion were matters to be decided for a more conservative society like Northern Ireland by its devolved assembly alone and would not be raised in the talks with the Tories. Secondly, this was a simplistic picture since the DUP, like any party, contains a range of views on these issues: for example, the party contains strong environmentalists alongside climate change sceptics.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the DUP in 2017, like the rest of the world, is changing. It may seem glacially slow at times but it is happening. “We’re a few years behind the curve compared to the average British or Irish person on issues like marriage equality, but at some point we’ll catch up. And anyway you could say that the liberal elite is a bit ahead of the man or woman in the street on such issues,” was the view of one senior DUP person (admittedly on the more open-minded wing of the party) whom I spoke to recently. He guessed that around half the nearly 300,000 people who had voted DUP in this month’s Westminster election were probably in favour of marriage equality. The party’s voting base is thus “much more liberal” than 40 years ago, when Ian Paisley was leading his ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign. This man estimates that only 20% of the party’s MLAs are now from the fundamentalist, anti-Catholic wing of the party that used be almost totally dominant in the 1970s and 1980s.

It goes without saying that the one thing the DUP is not for turning on is its fierce attachment to British sovereignty. That was why after Sinn Fein came within 1,200 votes of the party in the March Assembly elections, the unionist electorate rallied round so that its vote surged by more than 10% (roughly the same as Labour’s in Britain) compared to its 2015 general election tally.  That’s what happens when Ulster unionists feel particularly threatened by Irish republicanism: they move to the hardest, most uncompromising wing of unionism. Surprisingly, after nearly a century of living side by side with it, Northern nationalists – and Sinn Fein in particular – tend to totally underestimate the huge strength of this bedrock allegiance.

Let’s not lose the run of ourselves. The DUP are extremely hard work, particularly when they have to deal with those – whether in Dublin or the North – who believe the ultimate destination of Irish politics is some form of unity. But they are not totally deaf to reasoned argument. And many of them realise that a hard Brexit would be particularly damaging to Northern’s Ireland fragile and subsidy-dependent economy. “An open, frictionless border is now as much DUP policy as Sinn Fein policy”, says the DUP man quoted above. “And remember that 20 years ago we were still talking about building walls along the border.”

He says Leo Varadkar – “modern, metropolitan, more sympathetic to the UK than many other Southern politicians” – would have been the DUP’s preferred candidate as Taoiseach. Similarly the party feels comfortable in dealing with the technocratic Simon Coveney, who as Minister for Agriculture was the first Southern politician to address a DUP conference meeting, when it comes to Brexit and North-South matters.

“The DUP are a lot more open to good North-South relations now as long as there is zero movement on sovereignty”, says my source. “The way for Southern leaders to deal with the DUP is to befriend them. Anything perceived as hostile – particularly on the sovereignty issue – will lead to them reacting badly. However if Southern leaders show generosity, the DUP will be embarrassed into reciprocity.”

He believes that if there is “an alignment of goodwill and political interest” in London, Brussels, Dublin and Belfast to devise a “tailored solution” to keep the border “as porous as possible, there is no reason why they can’t find one.”

DUP leader Arlene Foster, for all her often forbidding self-presentation, is an example of this pragmatic new breed: a former Ulster Unionist who is genuinely open to a return of power-sharing with Sinn Féin; a Church of Ireland member (not a fundamentalist Free Presbyterian) who has a friendly relationship with the new gay Taoiseach of the Republic; and a border region person who realises that a hard Brexit, and therefore a hard Irish border, will affect her Fermanagh neighbours in a far more damaging way than any other group in the UK.

There are opportunities for a Fine Gael-led government here. Unionists will compare the threatening language of Sinn Fein leaders like Mary Lou McDonald about the “endgame of partition” with Leo Varadkar’s charge that Sinn Fein are using Brexit “to make a land-grab for Northern Ireland.”  If Varadkar and Coveney can build bridges to Arlene Foster and the DUP and work closely with them to create as harmless a post-Brexit border as possible, then I believe new practical North-South cooperation opportunities may open up. And not only between governments – my DUP friend, in a very Irish way, sees a future frictionless border as being “part technology, part turning a blind eye to low-level smuggling”!

In the words of one veteran Belfast commentator, the DUP is now “younger, happier and more open to outside influences” than at any time in its history. Just as Paisley did the unimaginable and went into government with unionism’s bitterest enemy, the party of the IRA, and Peter Robinson worked hard to broaden the party’s appeal and tone down its more obnoxious characteristics, I believe Arlene Foster has the capacity to open the party for the first time to a genuinely friendly relationship – a relationship of equals – with the Republic.

The DUP may be paranoid about all things Irish. But whether we like it or not and whether they want it or not (and clearly it is their worst nightmare), they are Irish, they belong to this island, they are part of us. In the longer term we in the rest of the island face a very difficult choice: we either force the followers of the DUP into a situation where their fervent and fearful Britishness leads to large numbers of them leaving the island, or we reach out the hand of friendship, we embrace them in their Britishness and we learn to share Ireland with them in some form.

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism | 1 Comment

A cautionary tale: could this be the next phase in our island’s history?

Just over a century ago there was a northern province of a small western island off the coast of Europe which threatened to cause mayhem for the powerful and far-flung empire of which it was an insignificant (although then economically important) part. It armed its young men and brought the province to the brink of civil war to prevent its incorporation into an independent state run by its ancient enemies in the rest of the island and dominated by an authoritarian Catholic church. In this it was supported by significant elements of the empire’s political establishment.

For over 50 years this northern province’s majority ran a one-party regime which discriminated against and repressed the Catholic minority who continued to hope and agitate (occasionally using violent means) for unity with the new ‘rest of the island’ state. That minority eventually mobilised behind a peaceful civil rights movement, modelled on the civil rights movement in the US. This was attacked by right-wing elements in the majority population who remained fiercely attached to their imperial motherland and Protestant religion. In response a ferocious and highly effective terrorist force emerged from the minority community which for nearly 30 years shot and bombed the hated local police, the imperial army and civilians whose loyalty was to the motherland. Pro-empire paramilitary groups, occasionally illicitly backed by the imperial army, hit back with equal terror methods.

In the end, with all sides weary of the squalid little conflict, and with the help of the United States and the European Union, a peace and political agreement was reached. This was an extraordinary outcome, bringing into government together the political party most fiercely attached to the imperial union and the political party of the former terrorist force, equally tigerishly attached to the notion of a united island. It helped greatly that the ‘rest of the island’ nation and the old imperial nation were now equal members of the European Union, had collaborated closely on drawing up the agreement, and that the border between the unsettled northern province and the ‘rest of the island’ state (now two regions of the EU) was becoming less and less economically important. There then followed 10 years of reluctant cooperation – based on the two parties sharing power to run the province – and relative peace and prosperity. Although the deep divisions remained, most people regarded this outcome as something of a miracle, and a miracle to be cherished and slowly built upon.

Then out of the blue, the people of the old imperial nation (despite the fact that there was little left of the empire) decided that they were sick of being told what to do by the European Union and being forced to allow foreigners to come and live in their country. They voted to leave the European Union, utterly indifferent to the opinion of people in their western island province, most of whom wanted to stay in the benign embrace of the EU, which had contributed generous funding to its farmers and to its peace process.

To the dismay of most sensible people, the border between the province and the ‘rest of the island’ state was then fully reinstated, although it was a high-tech version without obvious customs posts. The consequences for the northern province were disastrous, with unemployment soaring as its uncompetitive small economy was buffeted by the cold winds of unprotected international trade, and the imperial government cut back on its historically generous subsidies.

Meanwhile across the sea the northern part of the old imperial nation  – which had close ancestral links with the unsettled western island province – was now insisting that it too was a separate nation, and, after several referenda, declared its independence from the imperial motherland. The political party of the former terrorist force – pointing out that, because of population change, it now represented half the people of the western island province – also demanded a referendum on re-unifying the island. Again it took several referenda, but eventually the people of the province voted by the narrowest of margins to leave the motherland and join the ‘rest of the island’ state.

Unfortunately that state was neither particularly wealthy nor very well-organised, and its people had no notion that they were about to be lumbered with the warring and impecunious people of the unsettled northern province. The authorities there were utterly unprepared for this surprise re-unification (foreign ministry officials from the former imperial nation and the re-united island nation made several joint trips to Paris to find out how the French had managed their sudden exit from Algeria in 1962, including the chaotic return of 900,000 angry and frightened former colonists).

The ‘rest of the island’ state’s tiny army and ill-equipped police force first had to deal with a short campaign of terrorist violence from unhappy right-wing northerners who still hankered after the old link with the motherland. Most of these were poor and ill-educated, since large numbers of middle class people in that pro-empire community had upped and fled to the motherland after the unity referendum. In the event, the violence was relatively short-lived – a few hundred people killed compared to the more than three and a half thousand in the 30 years of conflict in the last century – largely because the paramilitary groups leading it, reflecting the rapid decline of the industrial working class from which they drew their membership, were only a shadow of their 20th century predecessors in terms of organisation and ferocity. On their own, without the old imperial army behind them, they had neither the stomach nor the capacity for a lengthy fight.

In the ‘rest of the island’ state, there was an entirely unrealistic belief that the former imperial nation would continue to subsidise the province for up to 30 years at a cost of 10 billion pounds a year. But with the motherland struggling with a range of dire economic problems caused by withdrawal from the European Union, this turned out to be for only five. The EU did its best to fill the gap, but it was faced with its own multiple problems of financial austerity and currency weakness, mass immigration from poorer countries, terrorist attacks, extreme nationalism and the threat of Russia. In the minds of the central European powerhouse nations, notably Germany, which increasingly ran the show, the small western island’s challenges did not loom large.

The result was a permanently sullen and alienated minority in the former imperial province, with occasional outbursts of renewed violence. There was a drastic increase in taxation in the new, unified island state (particularly affecting its southern part), and a small but significant reduction in its living standards, as budgets were cut to provide the higher quality health and education standards demanded by the former citizens of the northern province (which they had become used to in the old days of empire).  Multinational companies shied away from investing in the province, which continued to need major subsidies, although now from Dublin instead of London. There was a knock-on effect on the fragile, foreign investment dependent economy of the rest of the island. An appeal for volunteers from the rest of the island to go to the northern province to help revive and re-energise it – along the lines of the German volunteers who went east after reunification in the 1990s – fell largely on deaf ears. Nearly a century of living apart in a cosy, self-regarding ‘rest of the island’ state meant there was little feeling of solidarity there with the troublesome northerners.

But the island was now politically united after over 100 years of being partitioned. That was the important thing. The northern province remained bitterly divided, divisions not helped by the fact that the party of the former terrorist force was now largely in charge there as part of a new if flimsy power-sharing arrangement. The economy of both parts of the island was stagnant because foreign investment had fallen off due to significant instability during the reunification period. Living standards fell in both parts of the island. As usual, it was the poorer people who suffered most, and the welfare state that had existed in the northern province for the best part of 80 years was increasingly run down. But apart from these minor matters, the people of the island lived more or less happily ever after. But did they?  I leave you, discerning readers, to make up your own minds.

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 2 Comments

Whatever happened to Northern working class Protestant radicalism?

There is an interesting conference taking place in Dublin this weekend (Saturday 6th May, 11 am-5.15 pm) entitled ‘The radical working class Protestant tradition in Northern Ireland’, which I am involved in organising, along with veteran inner-city Dublin community workers Mick Rafferty and Patricia McCarthy, who have been partnering working class loyalist communities in Belfast for many decades. It is sponsored by the trade union UNITE (in whose Middle Abbey Street premises it is taking place), the Glencree Peace and Reconciliation Centre and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I have written in this column before about the radical Presbyterian tradition of people like the United Irishmen Henry Joy McCracken, William Drennan and Jemmy Hope; the Tenant Right activists of the mid-19th century; Presbyterian Parnellite MPs like Isaac Nelson and John Ferguson; and 20th century socialists, trade unionists and feminists like Jack Beattie, Billy McMullen, Harry Midgley and Isabella Tod. This conference attempts to bring the story up to the present day and to ask the difficult question about whether this historic strain of Protestant freethinking continues to exist in the fearful, defensive and deeply conservative society that is unionist Northern Ireland today.

The conference will also see the launch of a new study of this largely ignored phenomenon – An Oral History of the Protestant Working Class – based on a series of interviews conducted in Belfast and Derry by Patricia McCarthy and Mick Rafferty. A strong message coming through these interviews is that many working class Protestants feel that the trade union movement –  for years the most important bulwark against sectarianism both inside and outside the workplace – is no longer for them. Unfortunately they now feel this about many institutions in the North which their religious brand once dominated.

There was a time up to 40-50 years ago when the trade union movement, centred on the industrial powerhouse that was Belfast, was made up largely of Protestants, and the leadership of left-wing Protestants. This was reflected in politics. In 1945 Betty Sinclair of the Communist Party (and later the first chair of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association)  just failed to get elected to the Stormont parliament for East Belfast. In 1962 the Northern Ireland Labour Party won four seats at Stormont. As the poet John Hewitt later pointed out, they were prepared to act as a “constructive opposition” to the all-powerful Unionist Party, but “Terence O’Neill set out to smash them. Inevitably the Socialists were driven out of Northern politics. Good men driven away, I think, by despair. We, who tried so hard, live with despair.”

Today there is a different problem. It is summed up by trade union leader Peter Bunting, a valiant fighter for working class solidarity (while himself coming from a strong republican labour background), who says (in his interview with McCarthy and Rafferty) that “the Protestant working class has suffered a loss of identity and a loss of purpose which has percolated into the trade union movement.”  He believes that movement is not reaching out enough to Protestant workers with their pro-Union beliefs: “It is not sectarian to be a loyalist. But it seems it is not allowed to be a loyalist in the trade union movement although you can be a republican or a trotskyist.  This nonsense goes against the trade union ethos of freedom of expression, freedom to belong to any group you like as long as you are not engaged in violence or sectarianism. What’s wrong with having an aspiration to belong to the UK? It is no different from being a united Irelander. We must respect – not just tolerate – other people’s positions with dignity. We must get on with dealing with the issues that unite us as working people.”

Bunting goes on to describe how republicans took down Union jacks and put up Iraqi flags at a trade union conference during the war in Iraq, and how Protestant union members who had sons in the British army serving in that war resigned in protest. And how he got the leading band on a Belfast May Day march to play Killaloo, the anthem of the Royal Irish Regiment, leading to the first confused, then amused loyalist spectators taunting a banner-carrying republican contingent at the back of the march.”We were sending a message to every loyalist: this May Day march is not a Catholic thing. This is a cross-community parade.”

The left-wing historian and playwright Philip Orr, who is from a Presbyterian family, understands trade union leaders’ dilemma: “I suppose you can’t ask people from a republican background not to put up banners.  Loyalists have to carve out a left-wing perspective for themselves despite such risks, even though union militancy without betraying identity is difficult for them. And of course Protestants don’t want to be known as a ‘Lundy’ because in pressurised, uncertain situations like Northern Ireland the betrayer is always the ultimate enemy. As a community which has been living for centuries with this psychology, fear of the enemy within still goes very deep.”

He would like to see a play celebrating the experience of a Northern Protestant being in a trade union. “We are in a good space here, if we but knew it. We possess the English language, a free education system, a whole bunch of positive things people in other countries would die for. Loyalism should feel better about itself. Reclaiming the workplace history of being a ‘Prod’, both in its pain and its triumphs – that is an important part of it.”

Bobby Cosgrove, another lifelong trade unionist (and also an Orangeman), recalls how he first started to feel like a socialist as a 19 year old. “I was working in a Protestant area and this family came up the road from the 12th parade with four children. He was carrying bags of drink and she was carrying bags of bunting and flags. No sign of groceries or anything to eat and two of the children had no shoes on their feet. I said to myself, there is something radically wrong here. They were prioritising the 12th over their children’s welfare.”

Then there are the twin issues of the rapidly declining Protestant industrial workforce and the festering sore of sectarianism. Cosgrove remembers the building trade in the 1950s and 1960s, when the great majority of the foremen and tradesmen were Protestants and all the labouring was done by Catholics. Different Belfast docks had different sectarian workforces. In Harland and Wolff shipyard you got work if your (Protestant) father had a certain number of ‘buttons’. In Shorts aircraft factory and Mackies textile machinery factory there used to be an informal ‘Catholic Protection Society’ – “almost like an underground union” – for the small number of Catholic workers. Protestant workers would parade through these plants around 12th July with smuggled in flags and drums. As recently as the 1980s there were industrial disputes over tiny Union jack logos on boiler suits and trainers. And all this was against the background of the vertiginous decline of Belfast as a major industrial city with, for example, the numbers employed in the shipyard falling from 35,000 during the Second World War to 200 today.

Is it any wonder that the trade union movement in the North did not flourish in these circumstances?  During the three decades of the ‘troubles’, unions had a proud record of working for peace and against violence and sectarianism in extremely difficult and intimidating circumstances. Throughout the civil disturbances, terrorist attacks and sectarian assassinations of the 1970s and 1980s the unions played a crucial role as one of the elements in Northern Irish society that prevented it slipping into outright civil war. Despite some of the silly incidents mentioned above, workplaces were largely free from  sectarian strife even in the worst of these years. As late as autumn 1993 a leading trade unionist, Joe Bowers, led a protest march by shipyard workers following the IRA’s Shankill Road fish shop bombing which served to defuse a very dangerous situation, and the Irish Congress of Trades Union’s NI Committee brought together 10,000 people in a peace demonstration in the centre of Belfast.

If anybody would like to hear more about this largely forgotten tradition of working class solidarity and Protestant radicalism in the North, come along to 55 Middle Abbey Street this Saturday. Among the speakers will be Peter Bunting, Philip Orr and the writer and People Before Profit activist Eamonn McCann. Admission is free.



Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism | Leave a comment