The Protestant mindset and under-achievement

A report in today’s Belfast Newsletter optimistically headed – ‘Change coming among Protestant pupils says ex-minister as Catholic schools dominate league table’ – shows a startling and chronic under-achievement among  Protestant secondary school pupils compared to their Catholic counterparts.

All ten top performing secondary schools are in the Catholic-controlled sector for 2016-17. As this this has been a more or less consistent pattern for several years, it’s hard to share the optimistic spin put on this by the DUP in this report.

As someone who was born into a Protestant community and went to a state (Protestant) school, but who has lived & worked in both Protestant and Catholic communities, I think I understand some of the forces at work here and what needs to change – it isn’t a simple matter of young Protestants getting their finger out and ‘knuckling down’ as DUP worthies suggest.

This issue of under-achievement is not easy for Protestants to accept & a difficult one to talk about. But it must be faced if Irish Protestant children are not to continue to lose out.

There is a deep seated cultural malaise that has grown up over many generations within the northern Protestant tradition. Its origins come from a time when Protestants held a dominant position in Ireland which has not adjusted to changed circumstances in modern times. This dominant position bred a belief that opportunities would come our way in the natural course of things and did not have to be earned. Protestants were the dominant tribe.

It’s true this applied much more to the upper and middle class, but the working class were persuaded by the Big House that they were part of the tribe & conditioned to believe that the ‘Big House’ would see them right. After all, they weren’t Catholics; was the thought process.  There was always the shipyard or the many other engineering works. If all else failed there was the military or the police. All of these have either gone or contracted significantly.

Partition was organised by Big House unionism. Ordinary Protestants fell in behind the lead provided by their traditional bosses because it was believed they knew better. This continued until the 1970s after which the Big House took flight leaving ordinary Protestants with no previous experience of statecraft to take over the reins. They have never recovered from being deserted by their ruling class and now find themselves in a cul de sac. They know this.

This reliance on a previously privileged position (perceived or real) and on the Big House has created a lasting dependency culture. Many northern Protestants now find it very difficult to take personal responsibility for their lives and their society. It’s always someone else’s responsibility or fault. You hear it in every day discourse.

Patrick Keilty told a joke many years ago which, while not aimed at northern Protestants specifically, was in reality about their mindset.

Imagine Northern Ireland astronauts on board the Apollo 13 mission – the one that nearly didn’t come back from the moon and which Hollywood dramatised into a film. There is that famous seen when an explosion rocks the spacecraft and Jim Lovell radios the Huston control base with the famous words: ‘Huston, we have a problem.’ In Keilty’s joke the Northern Ireland astronaut says instead: ‘Huston, you’ve got a problem.’

I remember talking to a community worker on the Shankill who was working with young Protestants to get them a skill to enhance their employment prospects. He organised fork lift training. One young lad who had been previously very involved didn’t turn up to the training. When asked why he said his father had stopped him going. The father apparently had been unemployed most of his life and didn’t want his son doing any better and ‘showing him up’.

The history of the northern Catholic culture is markedly different. They had no ‘Big House’, big employers or an imperial government to support them, even their church let them down. This has encouraged a high degree of self-reliance which comes through strongly today.

I see this contrasted in the everyday life of the two communities. The Protestant community has most of its activity centred on the Orange Order and its bands, the church in rural locations and  local football teams. There is little other community activity to improve local amenities and general well-being. Self-help is a foreign concept.

I saw this vividly demonstrated in a small town I lived in for four years with a high degree of social deprivation. It was 100% Protestant. They continuously celebrated the past. The community was asked to come up with ideas for the future and were professionally facilitated in a lengthy process to do so. Their conclusions were a bigger car park and a car wash. To be fair they did somehow get an annual festival off the ground. The council ended up having to take it over. I have lived in communities elsewhere where such a development would be strongly resisted because of strong community pride and a sense of ownership.

In a town where I grew up which has remained divided fairly evenly – with the emphasis on divided – the Catholic community have built a highly successful modern arts centre. There is no equivalent on the Protestant side.

I’ve seen these patterns repeated throughout the north – with a few exceptions, as there always are.

The other narrative that feeds the Protestant malaise is the unspoken knowledge that their position in Ireland is in ‘decline’. They have seen the ‘other side’ get into positions of equality and authority and they see the population trends. Instead of coming to accept this positively, their political leaders have persuaded them to see it negatively – as defeat. The concept of victory and defeat is very strongly embedded in the Protestant psyche. It comes from their military tradition and 1690. There has been no effort by the unionist leadership to condition their people to the concept of compromise in preparation for what was seen by them as an inevitable trend as far back as the seventies. If you’re not winning you must be losing is the message.

Resistance to change is another long-taught negative concept. This manifests itself in the Protestant obsession with the past. Such a world view works against the entire concept of education with its inherent forward looking ethos that embraces change.

The highly censored form of Irish history taught in schools and universities tells Protestants that they don’t belong in Ireland, they are invaders and oppressors. If an adopted child is repeatedly told they don’t belong their level of achievement plummets. In a simplified form this is exactly what we are seeing in our schools.

I believe all this negativity feeds through to Protestant children and manifests in their academic achievement. The only way to change it in my opinion is to change the mood music with the Protestant tradition.

  1. Voices need to say that regardless of the existence of the union or the border, Protestants belong in Ireland and have a positive future here.
  2. Historians and opinion-formers need to teach that many Protestants have made a positive contribution to Ireland – north and south – over many generations, before and after partition.
  3. The culture that keeps Protestants focused on past glories needs to change. Protestants need to focus on the present and the future.
  4. Change per se is not always bad. In fact it is usually good. A change in the constitutional position of ‘Northern Ireland’ would not be a disaster for Protestants. What we have currently has been a disaster for many years, as demonstrated by the educational under-achievement of young Protestants. So a change in this would be good.
  5. It must be understood that the traditional Protestant mindset and education under-achievement are strongly linked.

Of course all this does not fit within the narrative developed by the unionist leadership. And so we see the problem. Expecting this problem to be solved by the current generation of unionist politicians is like asking the mafia to solve crime.

This must come from a new generation of open-minded Protestants.