I think it is fair to say that most of our views are the result of the conditioning of the class, culture and family we are born into. Few people rebel against this. They may modify the views of their family and peers or stage a token teenage rebellion, but only a select few will go on to reject the community values totally and maintain that rebellion for the rest of their lives.
Perhaps few wish to be isolated because they are perceived to have rejected the values of their family and community.
If this is true how can we claim that the views we hold are ours and not simply those of our tribe – what we soaked up sponge-like while sat on our parents’ knees and from our peer group?
I ask these questions because my own views have changed dramatically from those I acquired in my youth and I wonder why more have not undergone the same transformation as they move through life. After all if you’re over fifty, the world is a hugely different place from that which you grew up in. Life is for learning, is it not? How is it possible to hold the same views at fifty-five that you had at say twenty-five? But many do. I suppose nobody likes to admit they were wrong.
I am not making any special case for myself. I am not that intelligent, perceptive or indeed well-educated. Perhaps I am fortunate to have been exposed to a wide variety of experiences and influences. Whatever the reason many of the views I now hold are diametrically opposed to what I held at twenty or even thirty.
All this is especially true in the place I grew up in, the place known as ‘Northern Ireland’ (NI). Here most citizens are categorised at birth into two simple groups – ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’ – and many of their political beliefs flow from this categorisation. This categorisation is forced on you by government whether you accept it or not. I ask you how many ‘Protestants’ are Irish Republicans and, vice versa, how many ‘Catholics’ are Ulster Loyalists? We are branded at birth to conform to the tribal norms and most stay within these camps all their lives.
I was born a ‘Protestant’ and middle-class to boot. I grew up in a rural community in County Derry or Londonderry (the language used depends on what brand you have been assigned) in the 1950’s and 60’s.
My parents weren’t committed ‘Loyalists’ in the strictest sense of that label in Ireland. My mother was a middle class, traditional Unionist at heart coming from rural Co. Derry where her family owned a general merchants store. As a young woman she went to live and work in England where she soaked up many radical views in the 1930’s.. She campaigned for banking reform and organic farming before and after WWII, but never lost her unionist roots. As they say: you can take the girl out of Ulster, but you can’t take Ulster out of the girl. My father was a second generation Scots Presbyterian born in Co. Wexford and, due to the fact that he was fifty-six when I was born in 1954, his formative years were lived in pre-partition Ireland. In spite of being a Dissenter he was schooled for a time by Christian Brothers and described himself as an Irish Nationalist who wanted to see an end to partition. I absorbed his deep love of Ireland and all things Irish. But it was many years before I absorbed any of his politics.
Given this background, like many Irish ‘Protestants’ of his generation, my father was deeply conflicted about his loyalty and identity. He could criticise the British for their behaviour in Ireland and he had no time for northern unionism, but as a disabled ex-British soldier he could still stand for the British national anthem and salute the Union flag. I suppose his ‘Britishness’ was of a different kind that existed in both the ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ Irish before the Easter Rising and the subsequent partition of the country.
Intriguingly, to the best of my knowledge, neither my mother’s nor my father’s family had any links to the Orange Order.
As a boy in the 1960s I became interested in the Easter Rising. I had the 1916 Proclamation pinned to my bedroom wall. However when push came to shove in 1972 I reverted to my tribal branding and, while the northern counties of Ireland teetered on the brink of civil war, I became an Ulster Loyalist and binned the 1916 Proclamation in my bedroom. For passionate young men like me these were heady times. I had equally passionate ‘Catholic’ friends who joined the IRA. The irony is if I had I been born ‘Catholic’ I would have taken a very different direction. Sides were taken as in most civil wars according to your tribal birthmark.
This loyalist phase of mine lasted about ten years during the very worst of the ‘Troubles’, but was ultimately taken over by middle class demands of career and children. In any event by the 1990’s the scene was changing fast and so was I.
In the late 1980’s I was closely involved in the Campaign for Equal Citizenship (CEC). It was a non-sectarian campaign group arguing that as long as NI was part of the UK the parties of government – Conservative, Labour and Liberal (LibDem) must make themselves accountable to the electorate in every part of the UK if the country is to be ‘united’ and a democracy. Only the Tories responded, albeit half-heartedly. To this day Labour and the LibDems, while happy to govern all parts of the UK, refuse to make themselves accountable to all of the electorate, specifically the electorate in Northern Ireland. I began to understand the colonial nature of the union and of my second class citizenship within the ‘United Kingdom’.
I suppose the first real shock to my view of the world was the murder of Princess Diana in 1997. To my mind there is no doubt she was murdered. That conclusion quickly undermined my inherited and naive regard for the British Royal family; already shaken by Charles and Diana’s divorce.
A short time later came the Good Friday Agreement bringing Sinn Fein into the government of the northern state. It was obvious the old world order was fast disappearing. Some years later I worked with Sinn Fein ministers and MLAs in a professional capacity. They were not the devils I had supposed them to be: quite the contrary. I remember attending an event at a state-run/’Protestant’ school as part of a project I was managing. It was in a solidly ‘Protestant’ area, but there in attendance was a young Sinn Fein MLA. He didn’t have to be there. There were no votes in it for him. There was no political advantage to be gained by him. He earned my respect.
The devolution that was happening in some UK regions at this time prompted questions in my mind about what was this ‘British’ identity. The old empire was gone; the homogenous nature of the British state was disappearing under devolution, the idea of Scots independence was gathering support, the Royal Family was badly damaged and ‘enemies of the state’ – former ‘terrorists’ some of them (as far as unionists were concerned) – were in government in Northern Ireland.
Another shock to my world view was on the international stage when Tony Blair – a major player in the Good Friday Agreement – single-handedly took the UK to war in Iraq in 2003, in spite of huge public protest, because he ‘believed it was the right thing to do’. Blair based his case for war on outright lies about WMD. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered in order to get possession of Iraqi oil. I questioned the nature of the British state where one man could take a supposed democracy to war – a war that has since been shown to be entirely unjustified and an abject failure by any measure.
In 2008, ten years after the GFA, disillusioned with the failure of NI to live up to the promise of the ‘peace dividend’, my wife and I moved to live and work in Scotland. I assumed I would begin to feel Scottish given my strong Scottish ancestry. By coincidence I lived in Fife for a while – the Methven’s ancestral home. As it turned out I was living three miles from my paternal great-great grandparents’ grave.
I was perplexed that I felt no connection with the place. My ancestors had lived and died in the area for generations – much longer than they had lived in Ireland. They were bonded coalminers and farm hands, slaves in other words. Perhaps they had moved to Ireland in the nineteenth century to get way from that drudgery and Ireland had given them a home and a better life. (They were not ‘Planters’. – they paid their way). I was also perplexed when asked to declare my nationality. I had had problems with the increasingly meaningless ‘British’ label for some time. I wanted to put ‘Scottish’, but it somehow didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel Scottish any more than I felt ‘British’. For one thing I still supported the Irish rugby team!
I had to finally admit I was ‘Irish’. That set me thinking further. What kind of ‘Irish’ was I? Was there more than one? Was I ‘northern Irish’? Was there such a thing? What difference did the ‘northern’ qualification make? Was there a resistance to being fully ‘Irish’? Could I be ‘Irish’ and still a ‘unionist’? Did I even want to be a ‘unionist’ anymore? Many of my Scottish cousins whose ancestors had fought and died for the empire, built their railways and bridges seemed to think the union was now a bad idea.
Shortly after moving to Scotland the UK MPs expenses scandal hit the headlines: the true nature of corruption within the British state became apparent to me. Leading the pack of miscreants were Ulster unionists.
This was followed by numerous exposés of paedophilia in high places in the UK. It was revealed that Jimmy Saville and many other celebrities of the 60’s and 70’s had been protected by the BBC and others in high places. The BBC, the powerful symbol from my childhood of all that was high-minded and worthy about Britain was corrupt. Saville himself was a close friend of Edward Heath, a suspected paedophile, and latterly Margaret Thatcher who as Prime Minster lobbied repeatedly for him to be knighted and had him to stay at Chequers every New Year’s Eve during her premiership.
While in Scotland I began researching ancient Scottish history with a view to writing an historical novel. This quickly led me into Irish history because of the close links between the two countries. That was when my journey into my Irishness really began and then ended with the publication of my book, The Hare’s Vision, and with it came my conviction that Ireland needed to be free of its toxic union with England.
Attending a state-run school in Northern Ireland in the sixties and early seventies I was taught little Irish history; certainly nothing about the formation of the state I lived in. But I could rhyme off all the monarchs of England from 1066 along with the dates of their reigns. I knew all about Sir Walter Raleigh, but nothing of St Brendan or Brian Boru. Now in my late fifties I was learning about ancient Irish history for the first time and many things became clear. In particular, how prior to the Norman invasion there was a very different and well established civilisation in Ireland that both Irish ‘Catholics’ and Irish ‘Protestants’ could lay equal claim to – if they were allowed to. But the history of this time was not taught in either Irish or British schools.
I discovered too that Ireland – like many countries – had been invaded several times over the millennia. Prior to the Normans it was the Vikings and before them it was the Gaels from Spain who usurped the ancient and mystical Tuatha Dé Danann.
In the late twelfth century the Anglo-Normans invaded Ireland at the behest of the Pope Adrian IV so that the Roman church could take control of the hitherto independent Irish Christian church: a church that had brought Christianity into much of western Europe. The Church of Rome came in on the back of the Norman invasion. Up to this point Ireland was Christian but not Roman Catholic. With the Norman/Roman invasion the glory that had been the Irish Christian church – ‘the Light of the World’ – was snuffed out as it was absorbed into the European church. From the late 12th century onwards the Irish were conquered and exploited not just by the English in the form of the Normans, but finally by the Romans; this time masquerading as a religious institution ordained by God.
I learnt that the Roman Catholic Church was every bit an invader and an oppressor of Ireland as the English.
So we all come from invaders. This was key.
My ‘Protestant’ mind was conditioned to believe that only ‘Catholics’ were truly Irish and, much as I might desire to be Irish, Irishness was exclusive and wasn’t available to me. I wasn’t a ‘Catholic’ and I wasn’t a Gael. So I couldn’t be Irish. ‘Protestants’ were Planters and foreigners. I now knew that to be another Irish myth constructed to divide the people.
During this research it struck me as odd that the earlier Roman military empire based in Britain had never invaded Ireland, not even plundered it for slaves. The stock reason for this given by all sides was that Ireland did not interest them, being as it was (allegedly) rain soaked and populated by illiterate bog-dwelling peasants.
It also struck me as odd that these bog-dwelling peasants suddenly blossomed into the finest scholars in Europe during the early Middle Ages. Doesn’t it strike you as strange that conventional history tells us that one man, St Patrick, brought writing to Ireland in the fifth century AD and within one hundred years of his death thousands of these illiterate pagans are leading the world in Christian teaching and in writing? Either, the Irish were remarkably quick learners and St Patrick was vastly superior to Jesus as a missionary and a teacher, or the Irish were already highly educated at that point and St Patrick (if he existed at all) and his hagiographers were lying to boost his image.
So something didn’t add up in my mind. Could it be that Ireland was in fact highly civilised at the time and too powerful militarily for the Romans to conquer? After all, the Irish also kept the Vikings at bay; confining them to toeholds of landand defeating them on land and at sea on many occasions – when the English were largely overrun by them.
When they arrived in the late twelfth century the Normans and the English found a very different Ireland to the rain soaked bog image. It was rich and fertile. So rich and fertile in fact that they have never left.
But the victor writes the history.
It was obvious to me that the Irish history taught in both Irish and British educational systems was largely fabricated to hide the true nature of Ireland’s ancient history. It was important to both the British and to the Romans to paint the Irish as a nation of second-raters, in dire need of both temporal and spiritual guidance.
This construct is important because it has defined Ireland’s history and the Irish view of themselves for over eight hundred years. It cannot be just an academic subject for dusty historians who, let’s face it, have conspired in the maintenance of this construct. People must take ownership of their true history.
The Irish – north and south – have been taught in their schools and universities by their own teachers and academics for generations that almost everything of any value came to Ireland from elsewhere. From the time of the mythical St Patrick (a Briton) the Irish have been conditioned to believe the imperialist narrative that they needed an external civilising influence to stop them from killing each other or starving to death. This enabled the British to continue their presence in Ireland to this day. Significantly this construct also contributed to the northern Protestant belief that they should not throw their lot in with the southern wastrels; that they would be better allying themselves to the industrious and mighty British Empire.
Could it be that Ireland had had its own glorious civilisation with the military might to keep both Rome and the Vikings at bay for hundreds of years when England failed miserably to do so? It was this same Irish civilisation that brought Christianity and learning to Europe in the Dark Ages; a civilisation that that was destroyed and all traces removed by the Anglo-Roman assault in the twelfth century. The circumstantial evidence is strong.
If the proper investment was made in objective historical and archaeological research who knows what would come to light and what that paradigm shift in perception would achieve?
In 2010 following the banking collapse of 2008, a Tory government was elected in England by less than 25% of the UK electorate and by less than 1% of the electorate in Northern Ireland. Yet after this election and without a mandate, gratuitously cruel cutbacks were imposed in public services motivated by a political dogma that rewarded the rich and punished the poor and most vulnerable.
Finally, following on from all the revelations of corruption, needless wars against much weaker nations, huge inequalities and the marginalisation of the north of Ireland, I could no longer see how I could or should give any allegiance to the so-called United Kingdom and its evil ruling elite. The union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was a con and the partition of Ireland one of many devices employed by the English ruling elite to divide the Irish against each other. It had infantilised Irish ‘Protestants’ reducing a once politically astute and radical people to a state of abject co-dependency with no understanding of democratic government. The British government and ‘British’ culture (whatever that was) were no longer anything I could identify with.
When I returned to live in Northern Ireland in 2013, Sinn Fein – the ‘enemies of Ulster’ – were well established in a power-sharing administration in partnership with their arch enemies, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Paisley and McGuinness were best buddies. If these two could do it, I reasoned, why couldn’t the rest of us? More than this, it appeared that Sinn Fein, were not using their positions in government to undermine the state as far as I could see. They faithfully administered the government departments and even had dinner with the Queen of England whose ancestors had repeatedly inflicted such harm on the island of Ireland.
But the government of Northern Ireland is a sham. Twenty-five years after the ceasefires and Northern Ireland has been unable to find its place in the world. The promised ‘peace dividend’ has never materialised. Sectarian politics is still the order of the day. Politics that addresses issues such as poverty, health and education has failed to take hold.
Northern Ireland remains a backwater with its economy – commercial, social and political – still at the bottom of the UK barrel, subservient to an unaccountable regime in London.
Yet remarkably Irish nationalists and republicans had accepted the peace settlement. Having been granted a form of equality they willingly and enthusiastically operated a version of British rule in the north. All seemed set for a dreary and mediocre, yet peaceful future.
That dreary consensus ended when the RHI scandal erupted in late 2016. The mean-spirited nature of the DUP was exposed in their angry responses to the accusations laid at their leader’s door. The Sinn Fein grassroots had had enough and the Executive collapsed. It looked likely that the GFA was finished and with it the power-sharing devolution experiment.
I too had had enough of my mean-spirited co-religionists. I had never been a ‘Paisleyite’ or a DUP supporter. Now I found I was completely alienated from unionism, its politics and its culture (whatever remained of it). That’s a hard thing to say for one branded a unionist at birth.
It’s true that ‘Protestants’ and ‘Catholics’ suffered alike in the ‘Troubles’ and victims from both sides have been treated badly since. I had both good ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ friends killed and injured. I count myself as one of the casualties. I was one of the lucky ones who got through it in one piece. But I can no longer stand shoulder to shoulder with unionists. The unionism I had supported in the seventies was independently minded. It had a strong anti-English sentiment. We weren’t going to be told by a bunch of English toffs how to run our own country. We would set the terms of our union as was done in 1912. It had echoes in Irish nationalism and common ground could have evolved. However that independence of mind was marginalised for fear of looking like a bunch of Shinners and the British were masters at ensuring there was no common ground between Unionist and Nationalist.
In truth the union was always about the money. It was primarily a business contract as set out in the very first sentence of the Ulster Covenant of 1912:
BEING CONVINCED in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster
Now unionism has no sense of self and has no resistance to offer to England’s power games. The businesses that the union was set up to protect – shipbuilding, linen and engineering have long gone. But unionism has not moved with the times and remains pathetically clutching to an idea of ‘Britishness’ which, if it ever existed, has also long gone. Their politics is a reactionary monoculture. Unionism does not embrace diversity and has been trapped by invented history. Their unquestioning loyalty to the Crown makes unionists blindly obedient to the state; even when the state is corrupt and acts against their interests. It is not something I can support any longer.
Abuse in Ireland
Of course the Irish state is equally corrupt and Irish nationalism/ republicanism has allowed itself to be too closely identified with the monolithic Catholic Church. It has been so since the creation of the state. When the state was created in 1922 the British handed government over, not to the Irish people but, to the Catholic Church who have been revealed to be every bit as oppressive and abusive. This reinforces my view that the Church partnered England in the invasion and oppression of Ireland from the 12th century onwards.
To my mind the (Catholic) Irish are finally coming to terms with the fact they are emerging a from a long history of coping with abuse. Like children with abusive parents they fled the family (the British) in adulthood and sought comfort in the arms of what appeared to be a reassuring partner. They have now gone through a series of abusive partners – the Irish Government, the Church and latterly the European Union. Those who work with abuse will recognise this as a common pattern with the abused. Now the Irish have to reach an understanding about themselves if they are to finally find their rightful place in the modern world free from abuse.
Northern ‘Protestants’ suffered more subtle abuse at the hands of the British. Like their Scottish cousins, they fought and suffered in British wars, flew their flag and held the line against the perceived internal enemy. But, unlike the Scots, they have never been accepted as full British citizens and have never been allowed to live in a democratic state. They’re like an adopted child who loves their adoptive parents only to be constantly reminded of their difference from the rest of a very large family and who finds that their love is never returned. This was powerfully demonstrated by the vitriolic antagonism focused on the DUP in England in the wake of the Tory Government’s £1 billion deal with them .
‘Protestants’ even looked to a big brother – Big House unionism – to help them, but big brother (the landlord class) knew the game was up some time ago and departed for pastures greener. So now northern ‘Protestants’ must also look to themselves.
It is remarkable that so few northern ‘Protestants’ speak out in favour of an end to the union. People self-censor and are afraid to break the tribal branding. I believe many are afraid to speak out for fear of upsetting family, friends and darker forces; for fear of being branded a ‘lundy’ – a traitor to the tribe, an outcast.
Fear is a major motivating force in the northern ‘Protestant’ psyche. Fear of being ‘sold out’, fear of them’uns, fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of being seen as ‘different’. This fear has facilitated their manipulation and control. This is no legacy to leave to our children.
The inability of ‘Protestants’ to speak out and to embrace change willingly and not to have it forever forced on them is indicative of a society where normal democratic politics has never existed and where there is a rigid and insidious control of public debate; a cornerstone of any totalitarian state. This is the price of the union with Britain – ‘Keep your head down and whatever you say, say nothing’.
Protestants should not be afraid of alternatives to the union. After all they have worked closely for many years with their former enemies in Sinn Fein and the sky did not fall in. They have seen the baleful influence of the Catholic Church come crashing down under the weight of revelations of vile abuse. The border exists now only in people’s minds – unless Brexit changes this (I believe – if Brexit ever happens – it won’t create a hard border).
So finally it is clear to me that the voice of northern Irish ‘Protestants’ -marginalised and infantilised by the ‘British’ and left without any democratic voice at less than 2% of the UK population – would now be heard loudly in Dublin at almost 20% of the Irish population. The impact of that 20% will be seismic and Ireland will change (for the better) immeasurably.
People like me hope that an accommodation can be reached between our abused peoples; that northern Protestants can find their long forgotten home in Ireland with their Catholic siblings that they lost contact with so long ago.