“The people are 20 years ahead of the politicians”
New DUP leader Edwin Poots has attempted to talk about Northern Ireland’s next 100 years, assuring us in traditional terms that “when unionism has its back to the wall history has proven that we will come out of the fight” . However, as feminist and former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party Dawn Purvis sees it, “we are now at the beginning of the end.”
She predicts Scotland will gain independence and the UK government will seize the opportunity to drop “this backyard feud” by agreeing to a border poll in that country. “DUP doesn’t prepare people,” she told me. She said working-class communities have too often looked to the DUP for direction and leadership without getting either. “Our history is only repeating itself,” she said.
Purvis described how in 2006 she was speaking with members of the DUP in North Antrim and told them that in her opinion the then leader of the DUP, Rev. Ian Paisley, would strike a deal with Sinn Fein. And they said, ‘No he won’t, no he won’t. The Doc won’t sell us. ‘”
Soon after, the St Andrews deal saw Paisley enter Stormont in partnership with Martin McGuinness. In no time at all, they appeared together, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, laughing with laughter on an Ikea sofa – the Chuckle Brothers.
“If we have Scotland for the Scots, England for the British, Wales for the Welsh, that leaves the last vestiges of the British in Northern Ireland,” she said. (The Welsh Prime Minister also recently predicted the breakup of the UK.) “Northern Ireland for the British. What does it mean? What does it mean when it happens to people who cling to that notion of identity that they can’t explain, but it’s something they cling to, as if someone was trying to steal it from them? The DUP does not have these conversations.
Except, it seems, with the unprecedented feature of the Council of Loyalist Communities, which is suddenly presented as if it were the voice of the working class. This unelected committee of older white men has now been consulted by, among others, the outgoing Prime Minister and Lord Nigel Dodds, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Secretary of State, the Republic Foreign Minister and Lord Frost. Why? Because it includes representatives of loyalist paramilitary groups.
A few weeks ago, he sent a 19-year-old, who had only joined him days before, to tell the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Westminster, which is studying the impacts of the Brexit protocol , that such was the anger that he could not exclude the use of violence.
Twenty-two years ago, while writing Northern Protestants – An Unsetled People, the late Billy Mitchell, a UVF alumnus who supported the 1998 Good Friday Accord, told me that even though ‘he was taking responsibility for his own choices in life, it was Paisley who fired him to decide to become a paramilitary. The loyalist ceasefire meant “we’ve sheathed the sword – they can’t shake it anymore.”
My new book, Northern Protestants – On Shifting Ground, features interviews with Chrissy Quinn and her partner, Davy Joyce. Three of Chrissy’s children, Richard (11), Mark (9) and Jason (8), were burned to death that year when loyalist paramilitaries supporting the Orange Order protest in Drumcree bombed their home in Ballymoney.
Davy Joyce is Jason’s father and a Protestant. Chrissy is the daughter of a mixed marriage. She told me that her only surviving son, Lee, who was 13 at the time, had failed to recover from the murders of his younger brothers and neither did she. “I’m just going through the days,” she said. This is the reality of loyalist violence.
Overwhelmingly, those I interviewed for my book were relieved that the violence had, by and large, ceased, although DUP adviser Kyle Black told me about the murder by dissident Republicans from his father, prison warden David Black, in 2012.
He described how hurtful it was to see his father’s name on signs burned in Republican bonfires and to see IRA graffiti by the side of the road where the ambush took place. He explained that he decided in the wake of the murder to get involved in politics to help transform Northern Ireland into a more inclusive and tolerant society.
I also spoke with Margaret Veitch and Joan Anderson in Enniskillen. They are angry and desperate. Their parents, Billy and Nessie Mullan, were murdered in the IRA Remembrance Day bombing in their hometown in 1987. No one had been convicted of the sectarian atrocity and the sisters believed the victims and their families had been forgotten.
“The British government has done nothing for us British citizens who have lived in hell for 35 years,” said Margaret. “It was a killing match around Fermanagh and right around the border.” The issue of inheritance is very far from being resolved and it is difficult to see how societal reconciliation can take hold in the painful void that this creates.
Sarah Laverty (28), policy and public affairs consultant and Green Party activist who grew up in Ballymoney, said her generation sometimes felt pulled back by the backlash of the past. She was influenced by her mother’s feminism and her father’s environmentalism. Although she is pro-Union, she was one of the many people I met who could not accept the social conservatism of the mainstream political unionism.
Brexit had also made her question her identity. “The majority of NI voted to stay in the EU and yet we had to leave,” she said. “It made me feel insignificant, disenfranchised and powerless and it made me start to wonder if I was a valued part of this UK. And, really, I had to say no. .
Brexit, unsurprisingly, featured a lot in interviews. Pamela Dennison, haulage entrepreneur, truck driver and president of the Freight Transport Association, was pro-Brexit, but felt the DUP made a terrible mistake in rejecting Theresa May’s ‘unfettered access’ deal in 2017 “We could have been Monaco,” she said.
She rejected the idea that now the DUP “drop the protocol” strategy was needed. “It would make things 10 times worse,” she said. “It would quadruple the cost of tariffs and leave us in limbo, which is the reverse of what businesses need.”
Stacey Gregg is an iconoclastic young playwright from Belfast, who has won some of the theater’s biggest awards for works that address issues such as slut shame, abortion and breaking away from binary notions of gender.
“My creativity arose out of the cognitive dissonance of growing up queer in an environment that I found unpleasant and strange,” she said. She returned to North Down with her English wife and child to make films and live by the sea. “Digital natives have access to ideas that go far beyond those transmitted by cultural sources. traditional traditions that fueled the imagination of their parents, ”she observed. “There is a fluidity in their sense of personality and identity.” She likes the feeling that Northern Ireland ‘has loosened somewhat’.
Rebecca Crockett, 17, who lives on the Derry-Donegal border, was one of many people involved in global movements. “The climate movement is certainly the most important for me, because it’s a matter of now or never. If we don’t do something, that’s all, we can’t do anything if there is no planet, ”she said. Rebecca, who attended an integrated school her father helped start, said she was unsure if her friends were Catholics, Protestants, or some other religion. It just didn’t happen among them. Rebecca’s father, well-respected local farmer David Crockett, who is also included in the book, died in a tragic accident in 2020.
Many people have spoken to me about the need to change the way we think about politics in Northern Ireland. Some living and working in communities where people are struggling to make ends meet spoke of the need for urgent attention to poverty and educational disadvantage and the worsening crisis in health services. . There was frustration about the obsessive focus on constitutional issues.
The idea of change is at the heart of Protestants in the North – On Shifting Ground. The cover of the book is from a photograph by Trevor McBride of Lundy’s effigy which is burned in Derry each December.
Robert Lundy was the governor of the city during the siege of 1689 and believed that a siege would inflict unbearable hardship on the population and that surrender would have to be negotiated with Jacobite forces. He was banished, his name is still used as a warning to those who are considered traitors to the Protestant people.
Many of the people I interviewed thought that unionism was served badly by its defensive stance, its rejection of change in favor of firmness, its habit of shouting “no surrender” instead of seeking compromise.
In Derry today, hard work has gone into many years to ensure that the Apprentice Boys and the Nationalist majority community no longer clash over the siege of Derry commemorations. Kenny McFarland, who is the president of the Londonderry Bands Forum, told me how cultural collaboration has transformed the city. “The people are 20 years ahead of the politicians,” he said. “We want a normal policy.
** Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground by Susan McKay is published by Blackstaff Press, priced at £ 16.99. An updated edition of Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People, with a new intro, is released by Blackstaff on June 21, priced at £ 16.99
Download the Belfast Telegraph app
Get quick and easy access to the latest news, sports, business and opinion from Northern Ireland with the Belfast Telegraph app.