Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground by Susan McKay review – a community at a crossroads

Growing up Protestant in Derry in the 1960s, Susan McKay was familiar with what she calls “the old cry of ‘no surrender!’”, which rang out at local unionist marches and gatherings. Towards the end of the decade, as civil rights protesters demanded an end to a political system designed to disempower Catholics, that unionist rallying cry grew louder and more strident in its opposition to the same.

“I learned that an obdurate refusal to compromise was central to our history,” she writes in the illuminating prologue to Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground. “We would not yield. We would not bend the knee. What we had we would hold. And if our backs were against the wall, we would fight.”

In May this year, when Edwin Poots made his inaugural speech as leader of the Democratic Unionist party, having ousted アーリーン・フォスター, he adhered to that familiar combative rhetoric. “When unionism’s back is against the wall,” he reminded his supporters, “history has proven that we will come out fighting.” Poots’s reign as leader lasted ただ 21 日々 before he, あまりにも, was toppled in a rebellion within his own party. 現在のところ, it would seem, unionists are fighting mainly with themselves, the DUP’s leadership debacle a symptom of a deeper existential crisis within unionism caused by a conjunction of forces, some predictable, some unforeseen, which have rendered Northern Ireland’s future as part of the United Kingdom increasingly uncertain.

Chief among them is the implementation of the post-Brexit trade protocol, which Boris Johnson assured the DUP would only happen “over my dead body”. It has led to protracted customs checks on goods entering the country from mainland Britain, long delays at ports and an acute shortage of British sausages on supermarket shelves. More than that, でも, it has made manifest Northern Ireland’s otherness within the UK, amplifying the anxiety of belonging that has always been a component of unionist identity, existing alongside, and in stark contrast to, the certitude and the bombast.

That anxiety was already acute because of the looming possibility of Scottish independence and its ramifications for the union as well as the inexorable rise of Sinn Féin, a party predicated on the establishment of a united Ireland. Then there are Northern Ireland’s rapidly shifting demographics, これ, as McKay notes, “are at a tipping point”. When the state was formed in 1921, she writes: “Protestants outnumbered Catholics by a ratio of about two to one… A hundred years later, almost half the population is Catholic, there are fewer Protestant than Catholic schoolchildren, and the only cohort of the population in which Protestants are in a significant majority is the over-60s.”

Her book, その後, is nothing if not timely. Organised in four sections – Far North, Belfast, Down to Mid Ulster, The Border – it adheres to the interview format of her previous work, Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People, which was published more than 20 years ago in the wake of the Good Friday agreement. もう一度, her subjects are ordinary Protestants who, as McKay puts it, “are outside the unionist mainstream” and often feel “excluded and unrepresented”. They include students, artists and entrepreneurs as well as former policeman, paramilitaries and victims of the violence of the Troubles.

What emerges most forcefully from her myriad encounters is a quiet, matter-of-fact pragmatism about religion, identity and social issues that runs counter to that stridency of the DUP narrative. Many feel that, as one interviewee puts it, “social issues have been neglected” in the constant manoeuvring over the national question, while there is a profound frustration with the Stormont assembly’s long, dysfunctional drama of stalemate and standoff. “We want normal politics,” says Kenny McFarland, who happens to be chair of the Londonderry Bands Forum. His plea is echoed in various degrees of plaintiveness throughout the book, suggesting a profound frustration, particularly among the young, with the combative politics of unionism versus nationalism.

As is the case elsewhere, many younger people have rejected party politics altogether, embracing more global issues such as climate activism and gender politics. Belfast playwright Stacey Gregg describes an emerging “fluidity of persona and identity” among her contemporaries, wryly observing that Northern Ireland “has unclenched somewhat”.

This may well be so, but one of the most fascinating subjects in McKay’s book is Anton, a young gay man with a deep “religious sensibility”, whose story makes it painfully clear how difficult it is to be different in a community where conformity is all and homosexuality is still considered a biblical abomination by fundamentalists, many of whom occupy the mainstream of unionist politics.

The most interesting voices here tend to belong to people who have made the biggest leap from one often inherited political belief system to another. Sarah Laverty, a Green party member, grew up unionist in staunchly Protestant Ballymoney, but now describes herself as “left wing, progressive, feminist, socialist”. Her disillusionment with Northern Ireland’s oppositional politics is palpable. “You get dragged back into the old divide,” she says wearily, noting how the traumas of the recent past so inform the stalemates of the present. “It is really quite draining to be a young person trying to get involved. だが, ええと, people are bored of the orange and green. They really, really are. My generation is bored of it.”

That frustration with things as they are is a constant in this fascinating and constantly thought-provoking book. It may be the main reason why, as McKay points out, the progressive, cross-community, pro-EU Alliance party under Naomi Long is currently gaining support from disillusioned unionists. Alone among the mainstream parties, it takes no stance on the constitutional question. That may ultimately prove untenable given the rapidly shifting demographics but, for now, it represents the kind of paradigm shift in political thinking that is needed for real progress to be made.

その間, unionist anxiety is turning to anger and, on the ground in loyalist areas, to unrest and threats of violent resistance from the paramilitaries, who have been an ominous presence at recent anti-protocol protests. One can only hope that the pragmatic voices that echo throughout this book will prevail, but Northern Ireland’s troubled 100-year history suggests otherwise.

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