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.



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Are there really 150,000 unionists who are persuadable for a united Ireland?

Last month’s blog was based on a most interesting conversation with the widely-read unionist commentator Alex Kane, in which he estimated that there were now 150,000 ‘soft’ unionists who were persuadable of the merits of Irish unity,and that he expected to see this outcome in his lifetime (he is 61).

This month I am going to cast a cold eye on this surprising thesis and ask about Kane’s evidence for it. In an Irish Times article three weeks after that conversation, he wisely omitted any figures and the ‘unity in my lifetime’ comment.But he repeated that in a post-Brexit Border Poll, Remain-voting unionists “may conclude that a bigger broader union embracing Ireland and the European Union is preferable to a smaller, narrower union of the UK out on its own.” He said “the next five years will represent the biggest challenge to the union in my lifetime.”¹

So what is the evidence for the 150,000 unionists who may now be ‘soft’ on the idea of a united Ireland? The first thing I should say is that in nearly 40 years of living in and regularly travelling to the North, I have never met a single unionist who has told me s/he has changed her/his mind and is now in favour of unity. And as a Dublin-resident, northern-born Protestant (and proud Irish citizen), I regularly put that question to unionist friends and relatives.

I put it again to three moderate, thoughtful unionist friends in recent weeks. Trevor Ringland, Belfast solicitor, former international rugby player and worker for cross-community reconciliation, was unperturbed by the Brexit vote. He continues to believes that the present post-Belfast Agreement political structures,with some minor changes, are “probably the solution to the ‘Irish Question’ for the foreseeable future and perhaps forever. We should focus on building relationships in Northern Ireland and across this island and these islands, essentially uniting people first and foremost even if constitutionally we remain apart.”

David Campbell, farmer, Ulster Unionist Party grandee and David Trimble’s chief of staff in the talks which led to the Belfast Agreement, is equally unworried. For his community, Irish unity is “not on our radar screen at all. I don’t know a single unionist, including those who voted to remain in the EU, who would remotely consider a united Ireland.” He believes that if there was another Northern Assembly election (as opposed to a British general election) in the near future, there would be “a massive vote for the DUP to keep Sinn Fein out, and this would probably impact again negatively on the Ulster Unionists.”

Among the younger generation, Brian John Spencer, a 29 year old artist and video maker (who calls himself an Irish unionist and recently travelled through Ireland’s 32 counties in 32 days, doing a painting in each one), has a softer view. He thinks Irish unity might become more attractive to some unionists if its principal spokesman was not Gerry Adams. “He’s the worst front man a united Ireland could have. He conjurs up ancestral fear and loathing among Protestant unionists that is similar to Cromwell for Catholic nationalists. If the political leader making the argument was a balanced, cosmopolitan figure like Michael McDowell (who has said there is an “under appreciation” of the Orange tradition in Ireland)  – or Leo Varadkar or Micheál Martin – the kind of middle-class, rugby-playing people I went to school with might find it more acceptable.”

I agree completely that Gerry Adams is a major blockage to persuading unionists of the merits of unity. He is somebody – unlike Martin McGuinness, I would suggest – who is utterly uninterested in reconciliation within Northern Ireland as a necessary precursor to all-Ireland reconciliation and unity. What motivates Adams is the realpolitik of demographic arithmetic, the persuasion of just enough Northern Protestants to join the growing Catholic nationalist population to vote for unity in a Border Poll, thus pushing the result over the fateful 50% mark in order to trigger the British government’s Belfast Agreement pledge to move towards unity. And damn the consequent unionist backlash.

This is the numbers game: traditional, ugly and unadorned. This is the republican aim of  Tiocfaidh ár La (‘Our Day will Come’) being achieved not through violence, but through nationalists outbreeding and outsmarting unionists. That wise commentator Olivia O’Leary, who knows the North well from her time covering it in the violent 1970s and 1980s, referred to this when commenting recently on the unionist parties losing their parliamentary majority in last month’s Assembly election for the first time since partition. “Catholics winning the population game” made her “deeply uncomfortable”, she said.² Agriculture Minister Michael Creed made the same point in a sharp radio exchange with Fianna Fail TD Niamh Smyth, who had welcomed the growth of the nationalist vote in the North,  commenting that he found “this sort of sectarian headcount approach profoundly depressing.”

Depressing or not, this is what we can expect from Sinn Fein for the foreseeable future. That’s why Adams and his little Tyrone henchwoman, Michelle O’Neill, are delighted with the prospect of another election on 8th June. With the unionists currently in some disarray and Sinn Fein’s popular vote only 1,200 behind the DUP, the more elections the better as far as they are concerned, until the day when their vote inches ahead of the DUP’s, and they can, with complete legitimacy, demand a Border Poll. That is also why I believe we will not see any quick return to a power-sharing Executive.  Adams and company have bigger all-Ireland fish in mind.

However Sinn Fein should not count those fishes too soon. I suggest that the figure for Northern Protestants – not unionists – deciding to vote for unity in a Border Poll is likely to be under 50,000. I arrive at this calculation by taking the non-voting children away from the 70,000 who declared themselves Protestant and nationalist in the 2011 Northern Ireland census, and adding a few thousand ‘change of mind’ unionists .  This is insufficient to push the vote over 50% (even assuming that the vast majority of Catholics and nationalists vote for unity, which is not a given).

One thing I do agree with Alex Kane about is that  Brexit will change everything. As he says in his Irish Times article, a post-Brexit  Border Poll would centre around the following question:  “Do you support a united Ireland (inside the European Union, protective of a multiplicity of identities and supported by the Republic’s political/business establishment) or do you support the union (outside the EU, possibly diminished by the departure of Scotland, and with the rise of a new form of English nationalism which will have no interest in the Celtic fringes)?

All this sudden talk of a united Ireland reminds me of the astonishment and unpreparedness of the great majority of German people at the prospect of immediate unity following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. That will be nothing compared to the unpreparedness of the ‘switched off’ people of the Republic of Ireland  if unity with the deeply fractious, potentially violent and economically parasitical North suddenly appears on the horizon. Truly, powerful  outside events rather than unthinking inside opinion more often than not shape the fate of nations.

PS What is there fresh to say about Theresa May’s announcement of a British general election on 8th June? With customary total British insouciance towards its Northern Irish province, this shows the most abominable timing – as the North’s politicians are once again trying to cobble together a way to learn jointly to govern the place. It will be another bitter and divisive election, with huge pressure on the moderate elements in the two blocs, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, to go into pacts with the larger extreme parties to maximise the tribal vote. We have truly fallen back into the sectarian swamp since the hopeful days of renewed and improved consensus government following the last Stormont election just 12 short months ago.

1  Irish Times, 14 April

2  RTE Drivetime. 4 April

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The most interesting conversation I have had about Irish unity for a very long time

Last week I had the most interesting conversation about Irish unity that I have had for many long years. It was with Alex Kane, the North’s most widely-read unionist-minded columnist: he has opinion columns in both the Belfast Newsletter and the Irish News, is a regular contributor to the Belfast Telegraph,  and in a former life was director of communications of the Ulster Unionist Party. This most insightful of unionist commentators is rarely read or heard south of the border.

Kane believes, quite simply, that Brexit has radically changed the prospects for the constitutional future of Northern Ireland, and, quite dramatically, that “a significant section of unionism is now persuadable in terms of a possible united Ireland.”

His reasoning goes as follows. There are around 150,000 ‘soft’ unionists. These comprise overlapping categories such as secularised unionists (many of them younger people) who are unhappy with the religious bigotry and ultra-conservative sexual politics of many in the DUP; unionists who voted to stay in the EU, and middle-class unionists. After Brexit, he believes many of these people are “open to hear arguments about Irish unity in a way they wouldn’t have been before.” Many of them have probably not come out to vote since the 1998 referendum secured a majority for the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

Not surprisingly, there are also ‘soft’ nationalists  – around 50,000 of them, Kane estimates – who until the Brexit vote were relatively content with their lot in post-Belfast Agreement Northern Ireland as part of the UK, with the border all but gone and the comfort blanket of common EU membership.

Of course these people also need to hear the counter-arguments for Northern Ireland to stay in the United Kingdom:about the UK being a strong and tolerant multi-identity state, the kind of arguments that defeated the Scottish nationalists in their 2014 referendum. However they are not hearing these from the DUP. That party’s response to unionism losing its majority in the Northern Ireland parliament for the first time in over 95 years earlier this month, rather than to ask the reasons why, was to fall back on the age-old Pavlovian call for unionist unity, ‘a circling of the wagons’ to keep out a newly resurgent Sinn Fein. It is clear that DUP leaders haven’t even begun to think seriously about the huge existential questions thrown up by Brexit.

Pointing out that we are four years away from the centenary of the foundation of the Northern Ireland state, Kane wants his community to be talking about the meaning of unionism in 2021. “When was the last time you heard any unionist leader giving a speech about what it means to be a unionist?” he asks.” What are we going to celebrate at the centenary of Northern Ireland, after the ending of the unionist majority in the Assembly, after Brexit, after the possible independence of Scotland, with a Border Poll on Irish unity inevitable sooner or later? And at a time when it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that unionists will become a minority in Northern Ireland over the next decade?”

He believes that “Brexit has changed the ground rules for a Border Poll.”  The stark choice when such a poll does happen may be between a united Ireland inside the EU and a rump United Kingdom with Scotland departed and probably ruled by a “hardline, right-wing English nationalist government in London that doesn’t give a damn about the Celtic fringe, and particularly doesn’t care about Northern Ireland.” And that could be in the aftermath of a Brexit deal with the EU that could be “horrendously bad” for Northern Ireland’s vulnerable and dependent economy.

South of the border he points to a recent rash of speeches and statements from establishment leaders, notably Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin, indicating that Irish unity is back on their agenda for the first time for many years. He thinks that if such leaders started to spell out carefully and sensitively what a united Ireland would look like in 20 or 30 or 40 years, how unionist concerns might be satisfied and how they could become partners in that new dispensation, there might be a surprising response from ‘soft’ unionism.

Sinn Fein has noticed this new movement in unionism. Its leaders are now constantly reaching out verbally to unionists, following the example of the late Martin McGuinness. Typical of this emollient language was Gerry Adams’ words at McGuinness’s funeral last week: “Let us learn to like each other, to be friends, to celebrate and enjoy our differences and to do so on the basis of common sense, respect and tolerance for each other and everyone else – as equals.” At the same time he appealed to republicans and nationalists: “Do nothing to disrespect our unionist neighbours or anyone else. Stand against bigotry, against sectarianism, but respect our unionist neighbours. Reach out to them.”

Most unionists still deeply distrust such republican appeals. Even liberal unionists I know still consider Sinn Fein the party of the IRA that bombed and killed them for 30 years, and ask why so many nationalists are prepared to vote for those who state that the murder of their unionist neighbours and security force members, albeit regrettable, was justified.

Several thoughtful unionists I spoke to in Belfast last week seemed unperturbed by Brexit, the prospect of Scottish independence or even Sinn Fein coming with a hair’s breadth of displacing the DUP as the North’s largest party. “Sanguine” is the word Kane uses for such people: “They continue to believe it will be all right on the night”. It was striking that at the DUP’s annual conference last November Brexit went almost totally unmentioned. At a Centre for Cross Border Studies conference I attended in Armagh last month on the impact of Brexit on Ireland, north and south, there were seven politicians and officials from the Scottish government, but just one unionist, the business-oriented MLA Steve Aiken. At the most recent meeting of the Loyalist Communities Council, which brings together the three main loyalist paramilitary organisations, the re-emergence of Irish unity as a real possibility was not even raised, although the SDLP’s resurrection of joint authority was (surely a classic example of missing the bigger picture!). I would describe unionist attitudes to Brexit and the other existential challenges to the North coming down the line more as “heads in the sand” than sanguine.

Kane also wonders about the symbolic impact of a sizeable number of unionists obtaining Irish passports in anticipation of a British withdrawal from the EU, “thus taking on half of another identity.” He notes that Sherlock Holmes described his method as “founded upon the observation of trifles.”

If Kane is right, and the unionist monolith is beginning to move, it will come as a surprise to most knowledgeable observers of the North. Brexit is the huge imponderable. After Brexit, Kane says that unionist politicians have to get ready for “the unexpected and the inexplicable. It has happened in the past – be prepared for it to happen again.” As for himself, this most unionist of commentators, now in his early sixties, believes that “Irish unity will be the last big political story in my active writing lifetime.”

PS That excellent commentator, Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy – who is far better informed about such things than I am – disagrees with the analysis in my February blog that Fianna Fail will have to do a deal with Sinn Fein to enter government in the South after the next election. He writes:”Micheál Martin will rule out coalition with Sinn Fein during the election campaign, and will stick to that, I expect. He will not want to cede leadership of the opposition to them, even if Fianna Fail were to be the bigger party in a Fianna Fail-Fine Gael coalition. So I guess his best plan is for a minority Fianna Fail government – not ideal, but probably his most likely route to government now. The Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein coalition will probably come. Just not yet, I think.”


Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism, Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein | 2 Comments