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"The DUP leadership is monumentally out of step": Stephen Farry reviews 'Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground'

Protest in support of same sex marriage, Belfast, 2017 | Alamy

3 min read

Faced with yet another collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive and the ongoing crisis within political unionism around Brexit and language rights, in what is Northern Ireland’s centenary, Susan McKay’s new book is timely and essential reading for anyone with an interest in our troubled region.

Political unionism presents the idea that the Protestant section of the community in Northern Ireland are a monolithic group of aggrieved and socially conservative people whose overarching priority is the constitutional status of the region.

Award winning writer and commentator Susan McKay’s Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground, features almost 100 interviews, each highlighting the nuance of identity, how identity evolves – and can even significantly change.

McKay’s narration is considered and insightful, and the book is a worthy follow up to her critically acclaimed, Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People published 20 years ago in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement.

Interviewees include politicians, community workers, religious leaders, former paramilitaries, victims and survivors, young people and business people from every corner of Northern Ireland.

The lack of understanding of people’s priorities is also palpable

Controversial issues are tackled head on, including Brexit, the border, the legacy of the Troubles, paramilitary violence and the repercussions of the RHI (renewable heat incentive) scandal. And no stereotype goes unchallenged: we meet an Orangeman who sends his children to an integrated school; a Rangers fan who’s learning Irish; a Nigerian Church of Ireland rector in rural Fermanagh; and a Presbyterian former RUC detective who supports equal marriage.

The book displays an evident shift amongst younger Protestants. Kenny McFarland, who runs the Ulster Scots community association, describes his generation as “living in a different world”, while 28 year old Sarah Laverty describes Lyra McKee’s murder as the loss of one of “our own” – not referring to whether Lyra was Protestant or Catholic, but that she was of Sarah’s generation.

From the prospect of a United Ireland, to equal marriage and abortion rights, there is an open-mindedness across the board with which the DUP leadership is monumentally out of step. Even DUP unionists challenge stereotypes on Irish unity because, as McKay points out, they are democrats.

The lack of understanding of people’s priorities is also palpable: interviewees of all ages and backgrounds underline the importance of urgently tackling the climate crisis and creating a Northern Ireland future generations are proud to inherit.

Mainstream unionism’s resistance to feminism is laid bare too. One of the interviewees from Belfast’s Shankill Road, Eileen Weir, rightly explains, “working class-women are streets ahead of anyone else when it comes to changing this place”. The notion that the public are ahead of politicians is repeated throughout.  

Now for the Conservative Party to take note: for some, the faltering sense of unionism is laid squarely with Brexit and the UK government’s contempt for people in Northern Ireland. Sarah Laverty explains that, “[Brexit] made me feel insignificant, disenfranchised, and disempowered, and it made me start to question whether I was a valued part of this United Kingdom. And really, the answer was no.”

There is often a lazy assumption that identity in Northern Ireland is binary, in which Protestant equals British equals unionist, and Catholic equals Irish equals nationalist, with a few ‘others’ or ‘neithers’ in between.

What McKay and her interviewees eloquently highlight is that this is oversimplified and increasingly outdated and that identities are far more open, mixed and overlapping.

Stephen Farry is Alliance MP for North Down and deputy party leader

'Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground' by Susan McKay is published by Blackstaff Press

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