Northern Ireland: Beyond the Protestant label- Book review

NIALL MULHOLLAND reviews a new book that seeks to record what Protestants in Northern Ireland are thinking in these unsettled times.

Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground

By Susan McKay

The Blackstaff Press, 2021, £16.99


Author and journalist, Susan McKay, conducts nearly one hundred interviews in Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground. McKay discusses with various shades of unionist and loyalist politicians, community workers, religious figures, former paramilitaries, victims and survivors of paramilitary violence, young people, business people and even Protestant Irish language enthusiasts.

McKay, who comes from a Protestant background and describes herself as ‘Northern Irish’, conducted the interviews from the end of 2019 until the spring of 2021. She describes this as “a momentous period that included a health crisis, dramatic elections, a pandemic (which inevitably precipitated an even deeper health crisis), the Brexit transition, growing calls from nationalists for a border poll, as well as the introduction of laws permitting same-sex marriage and abortion”.

The interviews are presented in a clockwise tour around the six counties, starting from ‘bible belt’ towns like Ballymoney, in County Antrim, to McKay’s home city of Derry/Londonderry. The book contrasts areas like the “peaceful and religiously mixed town of Ballycastle”, the port of Larne, “ignominiously the source of the saying, ‘Keep your head low like a Larne Catholic’”, and “the city and suburbs of Belfast, where almost a quarter of Northern Ireland’s people live, a majority of them Protestant”. Since the Troubles ended, Belfast “city centre has been transformed by peace, but poverty has persisted and deepened in some of the areas that were ravaged by the violence”.

Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground gives a good account of the often diverse and contradictory views of sections of the Protestant population in the North, going well beyond the often stereotypical news headlines.

It is an often illuminating and thought-provoking book that dispels the myth propagated by many nationalists, and by some sections of the left, particularly those farther away from the North, that Protestants are just one reactionary mass that are hopelessly unwinnable to progressive, left and socialist ideas. To these people, the rich history of radical and socialist campaigning by workers and youth from Protestant backgrounds are a closed book.

Protestants have played a key role in many of the mass struggles in Irish history, including the backbone of the Belfast leadership of the United Irishmen’s heroic but failed uprising against British colonial rule in 1798. Protestant workers played a key role in the formation of the Irish trade union and labour movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Since the creation of Northern Ireland, which was forged out of sectarian pogroms and state terror including the physical expulsions of hundreds of Catholic workers and ‘rotten Prods’ (ie Protestant trade unionists) from the Belfast shipyards, there have been periods of heightened class struggles, such as the 1932 Outdoor Relief strike, which saw Protestant and Catholic workers unite and threaten the unionist state and Green and Orange parties. The Northern Ireland Labour Party gathered together Protestant and Catholic workers, and was for a time the second largest party during the 1960s, despite the mistaken policies of its leadership that eventually led to the party’s demise in the 1970s. The early phase of the civil rights struggle in the North in the late 1960s saw the involvement of radicalised, leftward moving Protestant youth, including some who helped to found Militant (CWI) in Ireland.

As Protestant demagogues, like Ian Paisley, and nationalist and unionist parties, attempted to sow divisions amongst workers and to derail the movement, the labour and trade union leaders failed to present a clear class alternative. Yet many shop stewards from across the religious divide, including those at predominantly Protestant workplaces, like the Belfast shipyards, were crucial in mobilising workers in opposition to sectarianism in the early 1970s, when the North was in danger of sliding into full blown civil war.

This reviewer joined the Labour and Trade Union Group Young Socialists in ‘staunchly Protestant’ Ballymena in the 1980s, campaigning alongside activists from a Protestant background. The Young Socialists made a name for themselves in the town by campaigning against the religious fundamentalist polices of the local council, controlled by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), such as the closure of all public parks and leisure facilities on Sundays, which adversely effected both the town’s Protestant and Catholic populations.


The long shadow of the Troubles

McKay’s book has harrowing descriptions of violence from the Troubles, including sectarian atrocities committed by republican paramilitaries, and the long shadow that conflict continues to cast on society.

For many of those who spoke to McKay, republican paramilitaries’ attacks on personnel from the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary and Ulster Defence Regiment were regarded as attacks against Protestants, as a whole. Interviewees from the counties bordering the Republic believe the IRA conducted an armed campaign of terrorising Protestant families out of these areas.

McKay speaks to Alan Black, the sole survivor of the ‘Kingsmill massacre’, which saw ten innocent Protestant workers shot dead by gunmen in South Armagh in 1976. The IRA is widely believed to have carried out the notorious atrocity, though it denied it, in revenge for sectarian killings by loyalists in the area. Shortly before Kingsmill, the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force attacked two local Catholic families, the Reaveys and the O’Dowds, which left six dead. In a poignant account, Alan Black thanks McKay for sending him a recording of a radio documentary she made about the daughter of the murdered Catholic musician, Fran O’Toole, who along with rest of the Miami Showband, one of Ireland’s most popular cabaret bands, was targeted by a loyalist gang in 1975, in County Down.

Not mentioned in the book are the mass protests against these tit-for-tat sectarian killings, organised by Newry Trades Council, closing local factories and workplaces and bringing thousands of Protestant and Catholic workers together onto the streets.  In nearby Lurgan and Portadown towns, shop stewards at Goodyear factory called out workers. The call by workers for wider action, including a regional general strike, was raised spontaneously by workers across the North. As was the case all too often during the Troubles, however, the conservative trade union leadership failed to press on the advantage. As the small forces of Militant in Ireland said at the time, a one-day general strike called by Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions would have tapped into the mood of anger at the sectarian atrocities and counter-atrocities and given the working class a feeling of their power. It would inevitably have moved onto class issues and developed a powerful workers’ movement against sectarianism and the mass redundancies taking place at the time.

Nevertheless, the courageous mass action initiated by Newry Trades Council, which could not be ignored by the paramilitaries or the state, was emulated by trades councils and shop stewards across the North from the 1970s through to the 1990s, with Militant (CWI in Ireland) supporters often playing a leading role, in opposition to sectarian atrocities and state repression.


The changing North

McKay’s book is a follow up to her critically acclaimed, Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People, published over 20 years ago in the wake of the Belfast Agreement (Good Friday Agreement). The North has changed over the last two decades, and unionism faces multiple problems. “In the centenary of the founding of Northern Ireland, unionism faces some unsettling realities”, McKay notes. “Brexit, championed by the DUP from the start, has had unintended consequences, not least the humiliating revelation that a majority of British Conservative Party members were willing to say that losing Northern Ireland from the UK would be a price worth paying to get out of the EU. Unionism has united, paramilitaries included, to demand the removal of the Northern Ireland Protocol by which the British and EU agreed to resolve the border issue without damaging the Good Friday Agreement, by putting the border in the Irish Sea”.

An opinion poll published on May 25 2021 showed support for the main party of unionism, the DUP, at 16 per cent, below Sinn Féin on 25 per cent, and equal with the ‘non-sectarian’ Alliance Party. The hard-line, Traditional Unionist Voice, was on eleven per cent. “The former dominant party was in difficulty”, McKay remarks, “losing voters at both ends of the political unionist spectrum”. Overall, unionist parties no longer hold a majority at the Stormont Assembly.

On Northern Ireland’s changing demographics, McKay writes it is “at a tipping point”. With the results of a new census due to be published in March 2022, it is clear that only among the over-60s are Protestants in a significant majority. When the state was formed in 1921, she comments, “Protestants outnumbered Catholics by a ratio of about two to one, and ruthlessly discriminatory systems were put in place to maintain control. A hundred years later, almost half the population is Catholic; there are fewer Protestant than Catholic schoolchildren”.

These demographic trends do not automatically mean that Catholics are destined to become an absolute majority, at least any time soon. And should Catholics become a majority in the North, it does not necessarily mean over fifty percent of voters would vote for a united Ireland in a border poll, were it to be called (a border poll also requires a simultaneous vote to take place in the Republic). But the population trends do add to a deep sense of unease and anxiety among many Protestants who fear eventual incorporation into a united Ireland.

“There is a new border, in the Irish Sea, as well as the one hundred year old one, across the country. Both are at the heart of campaigns for constitutional change. Unionism feels profoundly threatened”, McKay comments.


No resolution through coercion

The CWI in Ireland has always argued against forcing Protestants into a capitalist united Ireland against their will, be that by bombs and bullets or border polls. On the basis of capitalism, a headcount will not resolve the deeply entrenched sectarian divisions in Ireland. Likewise, we have always maintained that Catholics have the right to oppose their enforced inclusion in the Northern state, which historically has meant for them discrimination, poverty and repression.

Some Protestants interviewed by Susan McKay are open minded about the possibility of eventually living in a united Ireland, but they usually preface this with the condition that it is agreed by democratic consent and not coercive. She is “struck” by the views of Sammy Douglas, a former DUP Member of the Legislative Assembly for Belfast East, who considers that although people “feared” Irish unity, “you could probably live quite peacefully in a united Ireland; it’s just that the ten years of it becoming a united Ireland would probably be pretty awful”.

Many oppose a united Ireland, with varying degrees of firmness, indicating their fears that they would be second class citizens in a 32-county state and that their “identity and culture” would come under assault. The loss of the NHS and other gains of the welfare state are also cited as major concerns.

Many speak of grievances arising from the Belfast Agreement, which they claim appeased Catholics/nationalists at their expense, and they resent a perceived “two-tier policing”. Some call for a “new civil rights movement” for unionists.

Hard-line unionists and loyalists undoubtedly whip-up and exploit these feelings to assert their power and influence. Yet there is no doubt that genuine fears and anxiety exist among many working class and middle class Protestants. April’s riots in many Protestant areas, which involved very young people, in protest against the protocol (but with other contributing factors, such as a loyalist paramilitary group in south Antrim displaying its strength to police clamping down on its criminal activities), are a stark indication of the explosive tensions that exist.

All sorts of opinions, including reactionary views and prejudices are on display in McKay’s interviews, which is unsurprising given the decades of sectarian divisions. Some espouse openly anti-Catholic views. A pastor talks of “lesser breeds”. Other interviewees oppose equal marriage and abortion rights. Anton, a young gay man with a deep “religious sensibility”, describes the bigotry he faces from biblical fundamentalists.

But yet, generally speaking, there is an open-mindedness on social issues expressed by many, which puts the DUP leadership out of step with trends among many Protestants.


Institutionalised sectarianism

McKay comments that the DUP, “having so convincingly routed the UUP [Ulster Unionist Party], fell into that old complacency, taking for granted its position as the dominant unionist party, and the dominant party in the mandatory coalition at Stormont”. McKay notes that “the institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement have staggered into their twenty-third year, though they have only been operational for around twelve of those years”.

This confirms what the CWI said at the time of the signing of the Belfast Agreement. While Protestant and Catholic working class people yearned for peace, the institutionalisation of sectarian power-sharing and reliance on the market economy would mean none of the much-vaunted ‘lasting peace, stability and prosperity’ would materialise for the majority of working class people.

The DUP is discredited among many Protestants for a variety of reasons, not least its role in the ‘cash for ash’ (Renewable Heat Incentive) scandal, and following the debacle of the DUP giving support to the Tory government only to be ‘betrayed’ by Boris Johnson’s decision to accept an Irish Sea border with the EU.

To try to shore up its declining support, the DUP ditched Arlene Foster as leader and adopted a more religious fundamentalist and sectarian approach with the election of the (temporary) leader, Edwin Poots. He had already tried to ‘sectarianise’ the pandemic by falsely claiming that Covid was far more prevalent amongst reckless Catholics.

But there are other important trends. “Post conflict Belfast is home to plenty of radicals and progressives and people outside of traditional politics”, McKay writes. As one female Protestant community worker in the Shankill Road area of Belfast puts it, “working class women are streets ahead of the politicians”.

Young Protestants talk about how they are much more concerned about global climate justice than the “constitutional question”. As is the case elsewhere, many younger people have rejected ‘party politics’, embracing ‘global issues’, such as gender rights.

Many interviewees speak of their anger and frustration with the three-year shutting down of the Stormont assembly, and ongoing standoffs between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Many cite the damage this did to public sector workers’ pay and conditions, in particular, those of the nurses. There is a constant complaint that the domination of sectarian parties means that “social issues have been neglected”.

Society has also become more secular. In 1998, just 9% of people from a Protestant background had no religion. By 2017, this figure was 19%. In 1998, 52% attended church but this has fallen to 43%.

Sarah Laverty, a Green party member, who grew up in “staunchly Protestant Ballymoney”, describes herself as “left wing, progressive, feminist, socialist”. She says “people are bored of the orange and green. They really, really are. My generation is bored of it”.

The Alliance party gained from this mood change among many Protestants. For decades, Alliance was regarded as a ‘soft’ unionist, middle-class party. Under its current leader, Naomi Long, the party repackaged itself as progressive, cross-community, and pro-EU, and is winning support from disillusioned unionists. Formally, the Alliance party takes no position on the ‘constitutional question’.

But liberal-bourgeois politics is no solution to the deep-seated problems of sectarian division, poverty, the housing crisis, low pay and precarious work that are prevalent in Northern Ireland. Alliance is another party that sees its role as ‘managing’ the economic and social crises and religious tensions in the North, rather than seriously attempting to fundamentally overcome these problems of capitalist society.


Divisions will not be wished away

For socialists, the solution to the problems facing the Protestant working class, as well as the Catholic working class, is through the creation of a party of the working class with a socialist programme and deep roots among both sections of the working class. While McKay interviews some trade unionists and socialists, and makes positive noises about cross-community and anti-sectarian efforts, the real potential of the organised and united working class is not to be found in this book.

The recent election of Carmel Gates, a supporter of Militant Left (CWI in Ireland), as general secretary of the largest trade union in the north, the Northern Ireland Public Services Alliance (NIPSA), is an indication of the potential for the unity of Catholics and Protestant workers to resist Tory and Stormont cuts, and to fight for better working and living conditions. The election of another Militant Left supporter, Councillor Donal O ‘Cófaigh, on a Cross Community Labour Alternative ticket, in Enniskillen town, Co. Fermanagh, in 2019, in which he drew votes from both sections of the working class, is another sign of the possibilities for socialist ideas to gain wider support.

As well as resisting the bosses’ attacks and the right-wing Green and Orange politicians, a mass party of the working class could not afford to ignore society’s sectarian divisions and the national question. While it is understandable that many individuals who spoke to McKay are sick and tired of Orange and Green politics and want to ‘move on’, the sectarian division in society needs to be confronted by the workers’ movement, as a whole. The liberal, middle class Alliance party may hope to get away with abstaining on the ‘constitutional question’ but that approach is untenable for the workers’ movement, which must be vigilant against sectarian divisions in its ranks.

References are made by interviewees in the book to the highly contentious Orange parades, in particular the long running dispute at Drumcree, near Portadown, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as well as the flags dispute regarding the flying of the union jack over Belfast City Hall, which erupted in 2012. For many Protestants, the outcome of these disputes has left a deep sense of resentment, unfair treatment and alienation. The poet, Jean Bleakney, remarks that unionism feels “aggrieved, isolated and anxious” and “was losing ground in the face of Sinn Fein’s confident North and South republicanism”.

Indeed, Sinn Fein, which despite its radical posturing on social and economic matters pursues policies faithfully within the confines of capitalism, may well become the largest party in a coalition government in the Republic, as well as holding the position of First Minister in the Stormont Assembly following next May’s elections. From these vantage points, Sinn Fein is expected to forcibly push for a border poll to take place (the Northern Ireland Secretary of State has to give the go ahead for a border poll). Should Sinn Fein run into difficulties with its support base as it fails to be the radical, anti-establishment party improving living standards that many of its voters hope for, its leadership may well crank up even more the border poll campaign as diversion. This would inevitably be seen by Protestants as a nationalist campaign directed against them, with unionist politicians and loyalists responding with sectarian appeals to their base.

In the hands of bigots on the ground and sectarian-based political parties, contentious issues like parades, flags, border polls, contending ‘rights’ and ‘Troubles’ legacies’ can dangerously spill over into wider sectarian conflict. The dispute between Brussels and London over the Brexit protocol is likely to drawn-out and destabilising, raising sectarian temperatures in the North. And, as seen many times before, the capitalist state machine is incapable of ‘policing’ such conflicts.


Workers’ unity holds the key

It is necessary for the workers movement to not stand aside but take a class approach on these questions, in the interests of the wider working class. On the Left, the CWI in Ireland pioneered a way to chart a course for workers through the parades’ disputes in the 1990s. The Orange Order demanded the right to hold ‘traditional’ parades in areas where local Catholic residents objected to sectarian coat trailing on their doorsteps and were corralled by the mainly Protestant police. In several areas, this led to a stand-off and clashes between residents and marchers and their hangers-on. Many Protestants contested that their rights were being denied.

Militant Labour, the forerunner to Militant Left (CWI Ireland), argued that the long running contentious parades could only be settled by negotiation, involving the marchers and residents, and representatives from the wider working class communities and trade union and labour movement. For example, Militant Labour argued that Apprentice Boys could march through Derry city “except for the section of the walls overlooking [the Catholic area of] the Bogside”.

Militant Labour stated that it “was opposed to sectarian organisations such as the Orange Order and its equivalent on the Catholic side. However we respect the right of these organisations to march and to do so freely… local agreements acceptable to all could be worked out…Where there are agreements over parades, there should be no police presence, rather the stewarding… should be left in the hands of the community representatives”. (Should marches be banned?, Militant, 19 July 1997).

While there were rights on both sides of the parades’ disputes, the working class, as a whole, had the right not to be dragged into wider violent conflict.

Likewise, the larger question of the border and the ‘constitutional question’ will only be permanently resolved by common agreement among all the working class, Protestant and Catholic, on how to share the island. All other notions of ‘unity’ under the system of capitalism, and the class exploitation and sectarian divisions that goes with it, are illusory.

McKay’s book, with its liberal sympathies, indicates an alternative is needed to the domination of sectarian politics and to end social deprivation. For Marxists, it is the workers’ movement in the North, including the trade unions – the largest non-sectarian organisations in society, by far – that can provide a concrete alternative.

Under the influence of CWI supporters and the left in NIPSA, many contentious issues, such as state repression, prison conditions, and cases of injustice, which often divided wider society along sectarian lines, were successfully addressed by class-based motions moved at NIPSA conferences.

Militant Left in Ireland fight for workers’ unity and socialism – for a socialist Ireland, with full rights guaranteed for the Protestant minority, as part of a socialist federation, on an equal and voluntary basis, with England, Wales and Scotland, and as part of a socialist Europe. By subscribing to such a socialist programme, and campaigning against poverty, the sectarian parties and the bosses’ rule, a new party of the working class in the north of Ireland can win over the mass of Protestant and Catholic working people and youth.

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September 2021