issue 255 - May 1994
PHOTO BY CHRIS BRAZIER
Kissing King Billy goodbye
Not all Northern Ireland’s Protestants speak with one voice.
Ruth Moore looks back on what set her off down a new road.
Eleventh night: all over the land bonfires are lit with jubilant crowds gathering. The twelfth of July dawns, bringing with it the orderly and proud sash-wearers, orange lodges and the triumphant ‘kick the Pope’ drummers. Making thundering and shrieking noises, splashed in orange, purple and black, we celebrate a heritage whilst some of us, to add to the high excitement, cruise the route for someone to love. Paintings of our victorious William on a charging white horse, Union Flag-coloured kerbstones, revelations of defence plans for the Protestant ‘homeland’: all these are familiar symbols of Protestants’ sense of history and pride.
The word Protestant implies rebellion and dissent. Yet to the outside world Northern Irish Protestants are synonymous with the most small-minded loyalists. The image is of an inward-looking people retreating into the past, always saying ‘no’ and threatening a reactionary fight to make Ulster right. Here endeth any aspiration to dissent.
This perception of Northern Irish Protestants as outdated and reactionary is so well established that the very idea of a radical Protestant probably seems novel to you. In an entrenched sectarian society, it is indeed difficult for a diversity of viewpoints to flourish. People and political ideologies exist in opposition to each other – Proddie or Taig, Loyalist or Republican, one of us or one of them.
Yet there are radical Protestants in Northern Ireland. There are Protestant feminists, Protestant socialists, even Protestant republicans, for want of a better word – all of them people who in one way or another challenge the idea that the Protestant community is a single, united, homogeneous group. These elements of radicalism have been edited out for political convenience. The political convenience of the dominant unionist ideology is obvious enough – it needs to show a united front. But there has been a parallel editing out of radical Protestant voices within the Republican movement – perhaps for fear of the Catholic hierarchy.
I count myself as one of these Protestants seeking liberation and a radical agenda – and yet ‘coming out’ as a radical within Northern Irish Protestant society is in many ways as difficult as it is for people to come out as gay or lesbian.
I was born at the end of the 1960s, at the very start of The Troubles, into a household whose values mirrored (and whose votes sustained) the Rev Paisley’s DUP (Democratic Unionist Party). Being Protestant was my primary identity – so all-important and all-pervasive that I was for a time led to believe that this was all there was. There was our own kind and there were those who ‘kicked with the left foot’. I was defined and defined myself in relation to being Catholic. Catholics were Irish: they were often to be found Irish dancing and speaking the Irish language. I, in contrast, was British, proud of my allegiance to the Crown, to the monarchical figurehead of a Protestant state.
I mixed with Protestants at school and in church; my family bought groceries in Protestant-owned shops. The circle within which I moved condemned anyone who had sold their house or land to a Catholic, a significant issue in border counties. We were to be the defenders of our faith, which in practice meant defenders of our Crown forces and British rule in the face of Dublin interference and a threatening Catholic Ireland. We chanted ‘Paisley is our leader!’ and lamented the bloody ‘daggers in the heart of Ulster’. We knew what side we were on and we did not let that side down...
I perhaps did not have the words for it then but I was aware of other political issues outside the unionist-nationalist face-off. As I entered my teens I knew, for example, that I was female – even though I often wished I were not so. I knew that being female meant restrictions, meant I could not do what my brother did, meant meeting particular expectations and dealing with double standards. Whereas the rhetoric told me it was liberating to be a proud Protestant, much of my experience of Protestantism as a woman was of restriction.
Deep down I had some sense that parts of me were being suffocated and when the time and opportunity came this made the prospect of going to university in England very attractive. In England I found comparative freedom but I was also in uncharted territory. For a start I was now regarded by everyone as Irish, without question – and people found it as difficult to accept that I could be from Ireland and not be Catholic as I did to accept that I was seen as Irish and not British. At the same time I found the Irish to be well-nigh invisible when it came to academic study – any references to Irish people were tokenistic responses to Irish student pressure.
If my journey to England started out as an escape from something the escape was short-lived. The longer I stayed, the more it seemed like I had journeyed out in order to find home. Juggling multiple identities – Woman, Protestant, British, Irish – to see what they meant and how they fitted together, I found it more and more difficult to accept that to be Irish was to be Republican. And I found it even harder to accept that to be feminist is to be Catholic or English, a notion which arises in Northern Ireland partly because feminism there emerged from the work of Catholic women but also because any radical idea is automatically associated with the Catholics’ campaign for civil rights. I shuddered at the idea in some circles that a Protestant woman wanting to embrace a feminist agenda would have to drop her former identity lock, stock and barrel – how could anyone do that and what good could be expected to come of it? I became all the more convinced that we should not be asked to deny our Protestant identity but rather encouraged to question and understand it.
If feminists, for example, want to understand the specific oppression experienced by Protestant women in Northern Ireland they will get nowhere by dismissing the traditions which are so important to them. I have recently been involved in a research project which interviewed women to find out more about how they see their own lives in relation to these dominant traditions. Protestant women’s experiences are similar to those of other women in that they are expected to be heterosexual, to marry and have children, to care, to cater and to serve. What is different for them is that the domination of loyalist ideology in everyday life extends also into the expectations of women. Protestant women are supposed to be either ‘the proper wife’ or ‘The Orange Lily’. They are expected, in the words of one woman I interviewed, to ‘rear their children to continue the true Protestant tradition’, a duty another woman saw being fulfilled by ‘sending your children to good Protestant things, such as Girls Brigade’.
Loyalist women, like their men, are supposed to be loyal to the throne – even at a time when many perceive themselves as having been deserted by the throne! But in addition they must be loyal to the male head of the household – the proper wife, the working companion, the helpmate, the silent support and drive. And loyalism means containing the intense frustrations which arise from meeting these expectations.
This in part explains the silences of Protestant women, their obvious absence from the public sphere and especially from the male-dominated unionist political parties. Loyalty for Protestant women means keeping the lid on anything that might be questioning in case it shifts the boundaries. The pressures to keep things secure and the same are strong and the forces of domination and regulation are only too obvious. Going against the grain leads to accusations of betrayal, leads to ridicule, rejection and social isolation – what one woman called ‘living in a political wilderness’.
One woman spoke of her fear of the loyalist paramilitaries as one factor that kept her from speaking out: ‘It is physically risky,’ she said, ‘to challenge what other Protestants here seem to be supporting’. Another felt she had to vote for a man of ‘her own kind’ despite her scorn for his notion that a woman’s place was in the home. Still another said she could not criticize the male domination of Protestantism lest it be destructive to the ‘necessary and firm’ stand of unionism.
Nevertheless the number of people prepared to ‘come out’ as radicals or at least with a different view of the Protestant tradition is increasing. Wishing to get away from the sectarianism at all levels of life in Northern Ireland, they are starting to ask questions, to reclaim what has been edited out of existence until now. Through these personal journeys a new Protestant identity is being carved out in the workplaces, homes and community centres of Northern Ireland, one that moves beyond betrayal and dependency and beyond the stereotypes of the Orange and the Green.
Protestants in Northern Ireland have two choices. They can remain locked in a discriminatory, undemocratic and sectarian society, stuck to their feelings of embattled betrayal and their besieged psyches. Or they can participate in change and start imagining new ways of being Protestant in Northern Ireland, start reclaiming the hidden radical elements of their history. Through owning rather than denying these aspects of their identity, they can work towards constructing a non-sectarian and non-sexist country which gives justice and full participation to all – women and men, Catholic and Protestant, Traveller, Chinese and Jew.
The idea of Protestant radicalism may still seem novel. But somewhere in the critical mind and voice the original meaning of Protestant as dissenter is remembered.
Ruth Moore is one of the contributors to a forthcoming book Contemporary Perspectives on Irish Protestant Radicalism, compiled by the Irish Protestant Education and Action Group and published by Beyond the Pale.