Thursday 10 January 2013

The Protestants of Ireland know nothing of their history and this is the price we pay

Part of the reason why I'm still a unionist is because I'm convinced it must be right in some way, because how else could it have survived for so long given its leaders? It has been Irish unionism's fate to be led, and controlled, by a combination of people who are either unpleasant, incompetent or both. No other political creed in history has enjoyed such longevity, whilst also being led by such a gallery of grotesques. Its survival is also all the more remarkable when one considers that, unlike Irish nationalism, Irish unionism has no real links to its past; only vague, and often confusing, messages, almost all of which resort to defining itself in opposition to nationalism. In a nutshell, what nationalism is, unionism is not. It has, moreover, no real heroes - again, unlike nationalism, most unionists know next-to-nothing about the great "heroes" of the unionist past. While figures like William III and Sir Edward Carson may gaze out haughtily from the banners of the Orange Orders or from six-foot-tall murals, the details of these men's biographies are practically unknown. Devoid of political folklore, unionism therefore resorts to putting much of its cultural identity into symbols, rather than people - the monarchy, the army, the RUC, the Poppy, the parades and, above all else, so it would seem, the flag. Once you understand that, you begin to understand why they're so protective of things that seem trivial to outsiders.

On 3rd December 2012, Belfast City Council voted to remove the British flag from flying above City Hall. A majority of councillors wanted it to remain, but a republican-backed initiative to have it taken down forced a split in the unionist vote and the resulting decision was that it should fly only on designated days, like state holidays or royal birthdays. The corresponding explosion of sentiment across Northern Ireland took everyone by surprise. But it shouldn't have. This has been coming, in one way or the other, for years. Like a penny machine in an old arcade, there was always going to be something that pushed everything right over the edge. And on 3rd December, we found out what that was.

Riots swept the city, particularly in the working-class and Protestant-dominated east. The estimated cost, so far, to local businesses is somewhere in the region of £15 million in losses. And while life ticked along as normal in the city's wealthier quadrants, like Malone, Stranmillis or Ballyhackamore, and the vicious drip-drip-drip of unionism's thinly-suppressed snobbery (even for its own compatriots) led everyone there to dismiss the riots as the actions of ill-educated, jobless and tracksuit-wearing scum, to anyone who knows (or cares) about unionism and loyalism's increasingly-unstable sense of identity, these riots were not only a long-time coming but a warning. A warning that everyone is doing their level best to ignore. 

When the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought the Troubles to an end, the onus was very much on the Protestants of Northern Ireland to make the concessions. For years, they had been (and still were) the majority; it had been in deference to their wishes and the aftermath of the First World War that Northern Ireland had been created in the first place back in 1921. They had squandered much of this honour by creating a state apparatus that served their own interests first and the Catholic minority's second. That is reductive and it is not the entire truth, but there is much truth in it. Many of the symbols of old Northern Ireland were, fairly or unfairly, loathed or mistrusted by Ulster's nationalist population. Attempts were made to reform this in the 1960s, but the Troubles took over. By 1998, in order to create a functioning pluralist democracy, some of the symbols of "old" or "unionist" Northern Ireland were quite simply going to have to go. The bitterest pill to swallow for many unionists was the dismantling of the police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and its replacement with the less-unionist-sounding Police Service of Northern Ireland. As far as unionism had a folklore, the RUC was woven into it. Stories of bombs under cars, young constables ambushed by IRA men hiding in bushes after answering false burglary calls and maimed veterans walking in the Remembrance Day service, had all elevated the RUC to the status of the de facto heroes of Northern Irish Protestantism - particularly to the upper and middle-classes. When it went, as everyone knew it must go to gain nationalist support for the peace process, Unionists regarded it as the ultimate sacrifice - the ultimate pledge of good faith, if you like, in the shared future. History would teach us that all these things - a new police force, a power-sharing executive, amnesty for ex-terrorists (oh, how that one stuck in the throat for thousands and not just unionists) - were part of a process of compromise. Peace was the prize; compromise was the price. Unionists may have muttered, bitterly in some quarters, but they ultimately accepted that it had to happen if they wanted their children to grow-up in a world where army road blocks were not a feature of everyday life. Why then, after accepting all that with only a few murmurings, did the working-class sections of Irish loyalism explode into petrol-bomb-throwing wrath over the issue of a single flag over one building in the city centre which can still fly on certain designated days? They hadn't been anywhere close to this angry when an ex-IRA commander was appointed Minister of Education back in 1999. What was it about the flag, years after the peace agreement, that made them so angry? 

Well, part of it is that the flag issue seems like a deliberate slap in the face from Sinn Fein, the major party of Irish republicanism. Why, unionists ask, when the flag had been there for years did they try to take it down now? Why, when so much has been given up already and at a time when thousands of young Northern Irish men and women are abroad serving to defend that flag in Afghanistan and Iraq, did the nationalist parties decide to pick a fight over the city hall standard? Why did the liberal Alliance Party "help" them? And why, oh why, did the unionist leadership not do more to stop it? These are all valid questions and, for what it's worth, I think far less of Sinn Fein for kicking the hornet's nest. (I think far less of the DUP for not trying to calm the hornet's nest, but then I have no faith, really, in any of our political parties anymore.) Anyway, while we can maybe reach an understanding of why the vote happened in the way it did, no-one seems to be asking why so many working-class Protestants have been so terrifyingly angry about this one flag?

Part of it is, undoubtedly, that most of the rioters come from disadvantaged backgrounds, in which they cannot find work, have little education, few opportunities and an inveterate distrust not just of authority, but also of the hated outsiders. In their case, heartbreaking to say, outsiders equate with Catholics. Equally, the unionist leadership has never been able to control the working-class segment of its electorate. Anyone with a good knowledge of Irish history would recall how Southern unionism had struggled to rein in the dragon of the Orange Order at the end of the nineteenth century, only to lose spectacularly. The unionist leadership's deafening silence about these riots is a tribute not just to their cowardice, but also to their uselessness. They fear that they will not be listened to. So rather than take the risk, they do nothing and hope the problem will eventually go away. But there is a bigger issue here and it speaks right to the heart of both the tragedy and the folly of Irish unionism. Where nationalism is built far, far too much on its own concept of its history, unionism does not teach its history, does not know it and definitely does not understand it. 

Many Catholic schools in Northern Ireland should be wrapped harshly over the knuckles for the frankly shocking way in which some teach Irish history. In many schools, but by no means all, it can often amount to little more than a party election broadcast for the ghosts of Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera or Cathal Brugha. Equally, many state schools should be wrapped even more harshly for the fact that they don't teach it, at all. When they do teach twentieth century Irish history, they generally teach the nationalist movement, but they teach it in a curiously passionless way. Unionism, if it's mentioned at all, is the sideshow. A policy which I'm sure has a lot of students gaping in confusion when 1921 rolls around and 1/3 of Ireland was preparing to burn itself to the ground rather than be separated from Britain. The upshot of this dereliction of duty by  our country's educationalists is that Irish nationalism still has a cultural tendency to not consider unionists to be "real" Irishmen and women, it makes next-to-no effort to understand any of Irish Protestantism's attachment to the military or the monarchy, and it has completely written unionism out of the grand narrative of Irish history - which always seems to start with the words "800 years ago," and then a never-ending list of the wrongs done on Hibernia from Henry II to Cromwell to Thatcher, all of them, apparently, sprung from the same heartless vortex of Hell as Judas and Nero. 

But if nationalism knows too much of its own history, then loyalism does not know enough and because of this it is allowed to trundle on like some sluggish dinosaur, carrying all of its old bigotries and prejudice because it's never been properly educated about what really happened in this island's past. There is much to be proud of or, at the very least, interested in. The achievements of the Ascendancy in the eighteenth century are nothing to be sniffed at; neither is the industrial miracle of Ulster and Belfast in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries or the heroism of the Irish battalions in the great wars. There were also brave and noble men from Ireland who believed deeply and truly in the unionist message - that unity within the British Isles could bring more benefits than separation. Men and women who believed that it was possible to maintain an Irish identity, whilst also keeping British loyalties. A firmer knowledge of their past - and pride in its better moments - would give all unionists, whether rioters or not, something to focus on and an appreciation of Ireland's complex history. As it is, most unionists operate under the festering fear that once a united Ireland happens, they'll have to flee for their lives and every bit of their culture will be swept away in a relentless torrent of nationalist triumphalism. That may be a paranoiac fear, but things like the flag vote fan it; they speak right to the deepest of unionism's fears. A fear which, I think, has kept its pulse beating for years. 

A knowledge of Ireland's Protestant history, however, could also teach and warn, as much as it could inspire. After all, isn't that the point of history? Just as nationalism must eventually confront the darker side of its history, unionism could learn much from looking back at its less savoury moments. The Protestant Ascendancy's role in kick-starting the Gaelic Revival might allow Ulster Protestants to stop reacting with such revulsion and anger to things like the Irish language or arts; a knowledge of Edward Carson's plea that the new Northern Ireland should not become a sectarian state could show them that unionism was once-upon-a-time supposed to be a creed for all religions, not just one; Lord Craigavon's repulsive proclamation that he had fashioned a Protestant country for a Protestant people could finally allow Protestants to understand that mistakes had been made and that the bitterness of sectarianism can only poison for generations; Lord Brookborough's petty and vindictive sectarian legislation; Protestant nationalists; Catholic unionists; agnostics (here's looking at you, King Billy, and that handsome young chap you liked to go everywhere with. Don't tell the DUP, though...); the nobility and purpose of many nationalist politicians and figures; moments of compromise between both sides; the forgotten legacy of southern unionism. All of this could let loyalists see that this is not a "them and us" situation, it's not a simple situation and that parts of unionism once tried to overcome the bigotry of many of its followers. So far, only the Alliance Party has made any real and concerted effort to put that principle into practice. 

There is much, in any community's history, to be proud of and to be ashamed of. There is much simply to be interested in. These riots spring from a community that does not know enough about its own past but fears that one day, when the last British flag is taken down in this part of Ireland, that they and everything they know will vanish. Although they do not know it, they are carrying with them the greatest of Irish Protestant fears - the fear that sprang from the massacres of 1641. But they don't know that date, or what it means, even though it's shaped every moment of their political lives and every major piece of Unionist action for the last four hundred years. They don't know anything about themselves, not really, or the people they're allegedly fighting against. It's ignorance and fear - blind and stupid, vicious and lethal - that has prompted this community to take to the streets in a repulsive display of lawlessness and cruelty. They're clinging desperately to that flag because they don't think they have anything else left. 

Irish unionism's history is one of great achievements and repellent prejudice. But then, so is Irish nationalism's. And it's only once you understand that that you can begin to understand that all these big questions - British crown or Irish republic - have to be decided on the basis of today and tomorrow, not yesterday. It's only once you understand history that you can let it go. But because we don't understand it and because we've reduced it to a myth, oft-repeated but seldom-understood, we can't let it go. This strange, bastard, butchered version of history is all that most of us have in Ireland. So we cling to it. We cling to things like the flag, because it's where we came from. And because many of us still think that one day, somehow, one side in Northern Ireland has to "win". But we're not going to win if we keep trying to score one-up on each other. There haven't been any winners in Irish history, not really - not for the last century or so, if not longer. Next time you look into the masked face of a boy barely more than a child as he hurls bricks at a police officer's head, remember that. We are all paying a heavy price for our ignorance, but they're paying the highest. For them, this folly is all they have. 


  1. very interesting - got link here from facebook. i have been thinking about the flags - what do the councils in the other Counties fly...Munster, Leinster, Connaught? so should it be technically that they should fly the Ulster flag that is part of the Union jack? what would each side say? i can well imagine....

    1. The provinces don't have councils... Each county has its own flag and council. But I don't think what councils in the republic do. And not all of ulster is in tge north.

      Anyway, good article!

  2. Brilliant Article and strips the truth bare . Education is what both communities need . Thank you for this brilliant read ...

  3. I think you have hit the nail on the head.

  4. Interesting read

  5. It is the cross of Scotland ,cross of St. George and cross of St. Patrick in the Union Jack nothing to do with Ulster.
    Great Article.

  6. Good article for sure. Very interesting & i'd echo the sentiments above that education is the only way forward.

  7. Well written piece and view of unionism that can be respected by all. Well done sir.

  8. as a nationalist id be happy with the ulster flag there in place, I also wouldnt mind the union flag as even though it means nothing to me i know its the flag of the state that i live in and it doesnt annoy me to see that. what does annoy me is the lack of respect either side has for each other, even though its nothing other than birth really that decides allegiance. It needs to stop, acceptance not tolerance is the way forward. Im sure that out of everyone that reads this will have at least one friend that is from the "other side" to them. do they feel like an enemy to you? im sure they dont, and what makes them different from any other person on that side? only the fact that you have taken the time to get to know them. for the sake of this land we live in, no matter what side you're on, remember that the people you might consider enemies are not that different from yourself and if you got to know them might even end up being the best friend you could ever have hoped for

  9. I hope everybody in Northern Ireland reads this

  10. Bravo, sir...really enjoyed reading.

  11. Eloquent, articulate, well informed and objective!

  12. Thanks for that. Nice to read some sense for a change.

  13. Nail on head...thank you for that accurate and informative piece. I don't think the troublemakers and protesters or their politicians would be capable of reading this piece let alone understand or agree with it but maybe in the future,if and when their children receive a better education than they did, things will become clearer.

  14. Very interesting read I hope every1 reads this and maybe all this fighting will stop I did not bring my children back to live in Belfast to see all this trouble it is so sad we have gone right back to 1969 when I was growing up here I thought my children would never be able to see or live in this trouble it's so frightening

  15. A very interesting and informative article. I agree that education is so important, as is the removal of "blinkers" about the other side. Maybe I was very fortunate. but over 50 years ago as an A level history student we were given a very balanced view of the Irish problem. Mind you the history teacher was almost lynched by some pupils for her views.

  16. This is a good article, however i feel you have glossed over a number of points.

    Determining that the RUC had to go just to appease the nationalists without stating why is a bit ridiculous if you are going to talk about history.
    A police force that did not even come close to representing the population, police corruption, the foul actions of Special Branch in the cases of the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, as well as collusion in murder are certainly no laughing matters.
    The RUC was dismantled because of the discrimination it had brought on Nationalists and Catholics within Northern Ireland.

    You do however make a number of good points, and I hope many people read this. But I do find it frustrating to be told that the Unionist community had to make all the compromises in the peace process, without any mention of what the Catholic community endured for years in terms of crooked elections, police discrimination and Internment.



  17. Education can't solve everything, parents and community have a role, but the current teaching of history and citizenship clearly isn't equipping young people to think critically and be active responsible and democratic players in a shared society, well said.

  18. A useful analysis but flawed. The teaching of history has always been contentious and there is no doubt that for long enough Catholic schools avoided the whole issue of Irish history and still do for fear of seeming to be on any one side. And I think therein lies the problem. There is too much fear of 'truth'. There are many versions of truth depending on from where you look but there is a need to accept and respect eack perspective. There is definitely not a need to fear the truth.

  19. I just wish someday that people will know the difference between Ulster and Northern Ireland. One is its own country that should not have a 'them against us' attitude, while the other involve 3 counties from the R.O.I. How is Donegal British?? If we don't know where we live, how are we going to define ourselves? We are neither British Crown OR Irish Republic. When was the last time you heard from either the Queen or the President "Oh, Northern Ireland? Yes they belong to us"??

  20. Hi Gareth,

    An interesting read, you make some very interesting points. I feel that any 'loyalist' who reads this will not believe a word of it because it reads to me, as far from a balanced view point as possible. I think you've gone some way to very nearly ridiculing the culture of Northern Ireland citizens who are British.

    I believe that it is perfectly possible to be a citizen of the UK (British) while still being Irish, maybe not an Irish republican but an Irishman thats what I consider myself to be. For whatever reason I have arrived where I am, you may disagree but its what I am.

    I think the greatest shame that ever over northern Ireland is that a small, albeit vocal section does not believe in equality. What sort of harmonious relationship could all the people of these Islands have had if nationalists in the North had been treated fairly?

    I agree that teaching of History would be the best thing possible, how many of these orangemen are Presbyterians? How many of them had relations who were part of the united irishmen in 1798? Would they even understand the irony? Its not uniform that history is not taught, in my state school we were taught from 1800 right through to 1922, I wouldnt say unionism was a side story, I wouldnt say Nationalism was either. But then again, none of my school mates were out throwing petrol bombs... perhaps its a class thing.

    Its the class thing that seems to be the elephant in the room, the troubles wasnt fought by a bunch of people of all walks of life, it was the poorer classes of the cities and country for the most who were involved, people were genuinely terrified, I hated going into Belfast. It may be a common theme at the moment, and perhaps convenient to label teh RUC as being a purely bigoted police force, perhaps, but they gave the ordinary people some hope that these bad people might be stopped. I consider anyone out to bomb or kill a bad person, dont care what flavour.

    Perhaps the average person who wasnt political, didnt care has been forgotten in all this? Most people just want to be happy, have a nice house with a happy family. They're the ones who have suffered the most, never mind these deprived loyalists. What have the normal people got out of the peace process? More equality? Safety? but hope? I think thats starting to wane.

  21. Dear Author, I do not understand why you have failed to publicise my two previous posts. I have only ever asked one question and that is, when, and how have you consulted with loyalists before concluding that they are ignorant of their history. I have not been able to pass any other comment on the article in the absence of this information; it is absolutely critical to assessing the article. I would greatly appreciate if you would afford me the courtesy of publishing this post and clarifying the providence of your empirical evidence.

  22. I thought all schools taught a common History curriculum. But sure what would I know; I am a History teacher in a maintained school. No knuckle-rapping for me. I can also help with spelling mistakes.

  23. well written, and most refreshing to read some thing that gets very close to the problems that we face in this country,i regret to say that i do not think it will make a bit of difference to this situation as no one out there is brave enough to speak these truths

  24. Having attended a Catholic school in NI (left 1990) and studied history there to A-level, can't say I agree with the 'party election broadcast' comment. We did study the Home Rule movement but never got as far as the Rising or War of Independence. In fact, the thing I remember most from school history is that the 1832 reform act was a 'precedent'!

    That said, a fine read and good luck to you, Gareth.

  25. Catholics in Northern Ireland were much like the blacks of America; down-trodden, second-class citizens with little hope for work or promotion within large protestant-ran organisations...however the slave days are over, blacks have moved on to attain full equality if not overly so with whites fearing being slurred a racist for the silliest of things.
    Present day African Americans are still just like Northern Irish Catholics; they have got what they said they wanted; equality, yet they are still not happy, they constantly play the victim of history card. They do not want equality, they want dominance like their respective enemies had all those years ago...

  26. Very well written Gareth. It's refreshing to read an intelligent argument from a Unionist perspective. One thing though: you can never know your history too well. The lessons of the past are guidelines for the future. I say that as a post grad in History and as a socialist.

  27. I actually agree with the premise, that Unionists don't know their history, but not the conclusion.

    The truth of unionism is its anti-sectarian tendencies,
    emblematized in utterances like Gutsy Spence's 1977 July Oration,
    and other articles appearing in
    "combat" which argue for putting
    aside of "old cherished myths" in
    favour of finding workable co-existence in the present. And the flag
    is just one such myth - the protestant community should recognize that its rallying symbol is not neutral in the sectarian aspect of the
    conflict, and that some kind of compromise where the Irish flag is
    flown on Irish holidays and the British flag is flown on British
    holidays is exactly the right kind of "moving past cherished myths"
    and "mutual respect between communities" that the best tendencies in
    unionism can be about.

  28. What flag do the other towns and city's all over Britian fly- The Union Jack.


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