A Tale of Two Cities

These two contrasting images of Ireland’s premier cities – Belfast and Dublin – on the eve of the 12th of July 2018 are very poignant. They seem to capture something deeply symbolic, but also sadly ironic about the time we are in.

The image in Belfast of a Loyalist bonfire has many powerful and unpleasant messages displayed on it, directed at the Irish Catholic/Nationalist community: worst of which is ‘K.A.T.’ – code for ‘Kill All Taigs’ (Catholics). A message repeated twice. It also has flags of the Irish Republic and photographs of politicians who have fallen foul of Loyalists.

It is fair to say that some Loyalist bonfires will not have these hate-filled messages, but many do, especially those in Belfast. In addition, many in the Orange Order will completely reject the sentiments displayed on this bonfire. But until they move against the forces that lead to the building of these bonfires, they will be tarred with the same brush.

Break with the past

The picture in Dublin of the British Royal couple, Prince Harry and Megan Markle, a.k.a. the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, being warmly greeted by a friendly crowd in the city centre, displays many positive qualities. To the best of my knowledge there were no protests from Irish republicans with posters declaring ‘Brits Go Home!’

Whether you are a monarchist or a republican, this welcome speaks of a nation at peace with its history and its place in the modern world. The fact that British Royals can walk the streets of a republic surrounded by smiling faces, when one hundred years ago and more their forces slaughtered many Irish people in those very streets, is a powerful symbol of hope, forgiveness and big heartedness – on the part of the Irish.

(Why the British Royals are conducting a charm offensive with the Irish by regularly visiting the republic is another issue.)

British Royals and the Orange Order

Significantly, the British Royals are not one hundred miles north in Belfast to give solidarity to their loyal subjects during such an important celebration of their ancestor, Protestant King William of Orange’s victory over the Catholic James II. To the best of my knowledge no British Royal has ever visited Northern Ireland during the 12th of July celebrations to support their ‘most loyal subjects’. On a visit to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the Duke of York – the future King George V – refused to meet with the Orange Order. This royal boycott was maintained until 2016 when Prince Charles visited the order’s headquarters in Belfast.

King George V refused to meet the Orange Order 1897

Instead, during the 2018 Twelfth celebrations the Royals go to Dublin to hobnob with the leaders of a republican state created out of a bloody rebellion a century ago against British rule and are met by welcoming crowds. The date of the visit may be coincidental. It may have been scheduled to get American Megan Markle away from the clutches of Trump during his visit, but the synchronicity is still potent.

The two images represent how these two cities have evolved. The tale of these two cities – Dublin and Belfast – is deeply symbolic of the different fortunes of the two halves of Ireland.

Both cities have traumatic pasts. Both have suffered from the ravages of empire; immense and longstanding systemic poverty and violence. But one city has largely escaped from its past and taken its place with the great cities of Europe; the other continues to be trapped in provincialism, repeating ancient cycles.

Dublin has left its violent and theocratic past behind. It is no longer ruled over by either the English or the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin. It may have many problems regarding poverty and homelessness like most modern cities, but the people have moved on and finally shrugged off their oppressive past where their women and children were treated as chattels. Whatever the criticisms of the Irish state, there has been progress among the people and there is hope: they have escaped their past. There is now the potential of a better future.

On the other hand, Belfast, in spite of the twenty year old ceasefires, has been unable to shrug off its long sectarian history. There are still bitter hatreds, an absence of letting the past go and certainly no forgiveness as this bonfire testifies. It is a city far from at peace with its history.

Irish Republicans and Royalty

While there has been much good work done below the radar between former combatants – loyalists and republicans – to achieve understanding  and reconciliation, too  many loyalists (and unionists) are unable to move on. They feel cheated and marginalised as they have seen republicans (aka ‘Taigs’) prosper since the ceasefires. After all it is republican leaders – many former combatants – who rub shoulders with the British Royals while loyalist leaders who fought to defend the realm are ignored, even reviled.

Why do loyalists get so ignored and why have republicans found their place in the sun? Is it part of an anti-Protestant conspiracy or are loyalists to blame for their plight?

I should say at this point that as a young man (almost fifty years ago!) I was a loyalist activist. I gave it up in the mid-eighties. So I believe I have some understanding of the mindset.

You could write a book on the northern Protestant mindset compared to the Irish Catholic. It would make a fascinating study. What forces influence and create different communal mindsets? But here I’ll just touch on some of the influences that I think have created what has become in 2018 a toxic belief system among many Ulster Loyalists that harms them as much as it harms those around them.

Creating your own reality

Since those years as a young loyalist activist I have learnt many things.

One is that to a large extent you create your own reality by your actions and beliefs.

I think this is true of a group of people too. If the individual and collective belief system is self-pitying, fearful and angry then the world will move to give you that experience. Alternatively, if the belief system is one of hope, a belief in yourself and others and in your own worth – in spite of setbacks – then your life experience will in the long run reinforce that view.

It is clear to me that the former is the Ulster Loyalist and Unionist mindset and the latter the Irish Republican and nationalist mindset. So sadly Loyalists are reaping what they sow. Blaming others doesn’t cut the mustard.

How did this happen?


I think language and  communal history is the main driver i.e. the story a people create about themselves and allow others to create about them.

The language of unionism including loyalism is fear based and defensive. It is angry and resentful. It is always in reactive mode to events around them and dwells in the past. It never preempts or aspires.

This is in contrast to Irish republicanism. Republicans have learnt the language of hope over adversity. Protestants haven’t.

The Guilt of the Plantation

The northern Protestant story starts off with the Plantation. This tells them that they are invaders. They took someone else’s land. They don’t belong here. Irish nationalism has in the past worked to reinforc that view.

Although publicly Protestants would not admit to that version of the Plantation. They prefer not to talk about it. Still, you hear it in their language. I sometimes work in the field of genealogy and when you hear Protestants describe their family coming to Ireland during the Plantation, they often wince with guilt and almost apologise.

17th century Plantation of Ulster by Scots & English

More Irish than the Irish

The only way for Irish Protestants to escape that history was for them to become more Irish than the Irish. They did this successfully during the late eighteenth century as evidenced by the United Irishmen and the championing of the Irish language.

United Irishmen 1797

The English ruling class saw this and the threat it posed to their hold on Ireland. So they set about changing the Protestant mindset to separate them from their Catholic fellow countrymen and women during the nineteenth century – divide and conquer. In the Act of Union of 1800 they removed the Irish parliament and whatever vestige of independence the Irish had enjoyed. The outworking of this strategy made Irish Protestants agents of English rule and heavily dependent on the English ruling class. They came to define themselves as Britain’s loyal workers, defenders and soldiers. Protestants were led to believe that these roles gave them purpose and meaning.

For many years this structure worked for all but the poorest Irish Protestants, right into the late twentieth century. It was then that the wheels came off.

Two things simultaneously conspired to undermine the carefully constructed northern Protestant world.

Loss of Stormont

The first blow came on Friday 24 March 1972 when at the stroke of a pen the British Conservative Government took back direct control of the government of Northern Ireland from the Unionist (Protestant) governing class after fifty years. I remember the wave of shock and horror that shook the northern Protestant community at that time. They believed they were about to be pushed into the sea or worse, into the hands of the Bishop of Rome and his agents in Dublin. They have never recovered. In politics fear guides their every move.

The last Unionist government 1972

Loss of employment

The second factor that undermined the Protestant mindset was employment or the lack of it.

To begin with, the contraction of the British Empire since the end of World War II had steadily removed traditional opportunities for northern Protestants in the British military and imperial civil service. This was immediately followed by the closure or downsizing of many old manufacturing industries that had guaranteed Protestant employment for over a century. These industries – textiles, linen, rope works, tobacco, chemicals –  all but disappeared from their six counties during the seventies and eighties. The trend has continued ever since – mostly in predominately Protestant areas to the east of the River Bann.

Belfast Shipyard 1930s

Ironically the Long War of the PIRA helped return some of that lost employment to Protestants in the British security forces and related support industries during the ‘Troubles’. This additional spending helped mask some of the effect of the loss of manufacturing – until the Good Friday Agreement, when the vast spending of the British security apparatus that Northern Ireland had seen since the early seventies came to an end.

Departure of Big House Unionism

The double whammy of the end of their Stormont government and their traditional industries left Protestants at sea. Their ruling class – Big House Unionism – who had led them to victory in the Home Rule crisis in the early twentieth century, gave them jobs and ran their government saw that the game was up and – vigorously encouraged by Ian Paisley – withdrew from public life; in fact many left Ireland completely.

Signing of Ulster Covenant 1912

The hierarchical nature of unionism meant that few ordinary Protestants had been schooled in the art of politics and community leadership. Politics was for the Big House. So the workers lacked the leadership, communication and language skills. Yet here they were thrown into a political maelstrom. Their middle class floundered and their position was weakened year on year.

Ulster Workers’ Council strike

For a while after the fall of Stormont it was possible for an alternative grassroots Protestant leadership to take up the reins,  by getting back in touch with their radical dissenter roots and in time reaching out to their fellow Irish men and women. There was a period when working class Protestant disillusionment with their incompetent ruling class could have been positively channeled into a creative radicalism. Their moment was the Ulster Workers Council strike in 1974 which was entirely led to success by the Protestant working class with strong trade union support – paramilitary too.

Loyalists protesting the Sunningdale Agreement 1974

The Rise of Paisley and the DUP

For reasons I will never understand, after the strike control was handed back to the incompetent and feckless middle class unionist. This gave Paisley – who had no involvement in the 1974 strike – his chance. Narrow-minded religious Protestantism – previously marginalised to small gospel halls by Big House unionism – began to provide the leadership to a desperate community and it eventually came to dominate. Paisley cynically exploited and fed the worst aspects of the frightened Protestant psyche.

DUP leader Rev. Ian Paisley

Dependency culture

The paternalism of Big House Unionism and the institutionalism of service in the British military had produced a dependency culture among many northern Protestants.

Protestants, particularly the working class, had been encouraged to look to their ruling class for security and employment. When that support disappeared they looked to the British state, who they had served loyally in many wars. And when that proved pointless they became bitter.

Patrick Keilty tells a joke about the astronauts in the ill-fated American Apollo 13 moon mission in 1970. He imagines the astronauts are from Northern Ireland. Once it becomes obvious their spacecraft is badly damaged, their commander radios space control in Huston. Instead of uttering the immortal words: ” Huston, WE have a problem“, the astronaut from Northern Ireland says: “Huston, YOU have a problem.”

This joke sums up the northern Protestant dependency on authority; an unwillingness to take personal responsibility, deliberately conditioned by generations of subservience.

Irish Catholic culture

Northern Catholics had none of this baggage. They were taught to expect little from the British state. Even their Church collaborated with the state and in turn abused them. They were taught that, unlike Protestants, the world owed them nothing.What they wanted they would have to strive for.

However the one thing they got from the British state was an education which they used to its utmost advantage to successfully challenge the very basis of the self same state.

More than anything they acquired the notion of hope.

Most importantly, northern Catholics had no domineering native ruling class to disempower them, unlike their Protestant neighbours.The northern Catholic middle class at this time was very small and the upper class non-existent. Neither had any political power.

It’s true they had the malign and pervasive influence of the highly conservative Catholic hierarchy, but the recently educated young Catholics in the sixties and seventies would take little political instruction from their clerics. In any event the Church began to self-destruct in the eighties under the weight of many revelations of abuse of women and children in their care.


Queens University Civil Rights march 1968

Toxic Culture of despair

The outworking of all this history is the development of a very toxic culture of despair among the Protestant working class – the loyalists. They have been left by their old ruling class lacking the emotional and political skills to deal with their situation, in contrast to the Catholic community. Instead Loyalists now blame everyone around them and turn their bitterness on their Catholic fellow country men and women.

This culture of despair has manifested itself in poor educational achievement, especially among working class Protestant boys.

Learn to have hope

Loyalists must learn that no one is going to do it for them, that only they can get themselves out of the hole they have allowed themselves to be put in. It won’t be done through violence – as Irish republicans ultimately learnt. Until Loyalists accept this truth about themselves, they will sink deeper and deeper in to their own mire.

They have to come to understand that the only past that serves them is the one they like to ignore – the radical dissenters of the eighteenth century who sought to unite with the rest of the island. The rest of their past – the Plantation, 1690, Ulster Covenant, WW1, the monarchy et al does not serve them. It has been constructed to control them and in a very negative way. They must break with this mind control, rediscover the self-reliance of their eighteenth century ancestors and for once look positively to the future. Learn to have hope in themselves and in others around them on this island.

United Irishmen 1797


In all this I am not suggesting that the working class Catholic community now reside in a land of milk and honey. This blog is not addressing the state of the northern Catholic working class community in any detail.

First of all, I don’t know that community as well as I do the Protestant working class, but my sense is that there is a degree of alienation at work there too – hence the recent violence in Derry.

Secondly, alienation of poor working class communities knows no sectarian boundaries in any country around the world.

Northern Ireland has the highest level of youth unemployment in the UK and the highest level of suicide in the UK, especially among the young. These issues know no sectarian boundaries and I have no wish to compare one working class community to another in some kind of bizarre one-up-manship of who is the most disadvantaged.

The Good Friday Agreement shored up the political elites in the north of Ireland, it did virtually nothing to bring prosperity to depressed areas. We are now reaping the whirlwind of that negligence in both communities.








4 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities

  1. So why are the British Royals conducting a charm offensive with the Irish by regularly visiting the republic? I’d love to know!

  2. As part of the post-Brexit planning I believe there are strategies afoot to bring Ireland back into the British Commonwealth, if not back into the UK, in return for this there will be a ‘united Ireland’ agreed. To make all this work they need the Irish to like the British royals.

  3. This was an amazing read, and interesting to see it from the view of the “other side” as such. Really informative, and confirmed some of the thoughts I had which was causing the recent unease around the country.

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