'Protestant Perceptions of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland' edited by Dominic Murray (2000)
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The following chapter has been contributed by the editor Dominic Murray, and the authors listed below. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
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PROTESTANT PERCEPTIONS OF THE
2000 Centre for Peace and Development Studies
The Centre for Peace and Development Studies is a research centre of the Department of Government and Society, University of Limerick. Its principal aim is to provide research evidence concerning conflict and its resolution both in Ireland and in other countries throughout the world. Through its research and teaching it attempts to contribute to an understanding of how conflicts develop both within and between societies and how they may be most effectively resolved. The first stage of this process is to provide reliable and objective information on both division and co-operation. In this regard previous publications of the Centre have included A Comparison of the Education Systems in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; A Register of Cross Border Links in Ireland and Private Pain, Public Action: Violence Against Women in War and Peace.
A priority of the Centre is to engage in policy related research and it is in this context that the Centre is publishing this new report on Protestant Perceptions of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. The work is timely since it is becoming clear that this community feels it has been badly, and in many cases, wrongly portrayed. The contributions to the book also demonstrate the existence of diversity within the Protestant community - a fact not generally appreciated outside Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to all of the contributors who gave so willingly of their time and effort. I would like also to acknowledge the support of the University of Limerick Foundation which made this work possible.
Professor Dominic Murray
May Blood worked for many years in Blackstaff Linen Mill in Belfast and at the same time engaging in part time community work. For the past ten years she has been engaged full time in community endeavours with a particular interest in the long term unemployed. She is currently located in the Greater Shankill Partnership Programme. Her cross community work includes membership of the Springfield Inter-community Development Project and the Blackmountain Action Group, both of which are located on the peace line. She is also a founder member of the Women’s Coalition. May was awarded an MBE in 1996 for her work in labour relations, and an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Ulster in 1998. She was made a life peer in 1999.
Alderman Gregory Campbell was first elected to local government in 1981 and has been re-elected every four years since. He has contested assembly and parliamentary elections on behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party. He was first elected to the new Northern Assembly in 1998 as representative for East Londonderry. He is the security spokesperson for the DUP and is one of the senior party members. He was involved in the multi-party talks during 1990-91 and 1996-97. Gregory has written widely on the question of discrimination against the Protestant community in Northern Ireland. His publications include Discrimination: the Truth; Working Towards 2000 and Ulster’s Verdict on the Joint Declaration.
Robin Eames is Archbishop of Armagh and Church of Ireland Primate of all Ireland and Metropolitan. He was educated at Queens University Belfast, where he was Chairman of the Law Society, and Trinity College Dublin. He also holds Honorary Degrees from Cambridge University, Lancaster University and Aberdeen University. His publications include The Quiet Revolution: The Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and Chains to be Broken. Archbishop Eames is one of the most significant figures in debates about, and negotiations within, Northern Ireland. This has been especially so with regard to the recent controversial Orange marches at Drumcree.
Chris Gibson was born in Northern Ireland. He was educated at Campbell College and Queens University Belfast. He has worked in a number of roles within Irish and British based companies covering Ireland North and South, Great Britain and continental Europe. He was awarded the OBE for his services to industry and is currently a Pro-Vice Chancellor of Queens University Belfast and the regional Chairman of the Confederation of British Industry in Northern Ireland.
Duncan Morrow is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Ulster. He is a member of the Community Relations Council and a Sentence Review Commissioner for Northern Ireland. His publications include Northern Ireland Politics (with Arthur Aughey) and A Worthwhile Venture? (with Karin Eyben and Derick Wilson).
Dominic Murray is Professor of Peace and Co-operation Studies and Director of the Centre for Peace and Development Studies at the University of Limerick. His publications include Worlds Apart: Segregated Schools in Northern Ireland and Culture, Religion and Violence in Northern Ireland.
Barry White is a journalist with the Belfast Telegraph who has been writing about Northern Ireland politics for many years. He has filled many roles in the Belfast Telegraph, mainly as political correspondent, columnist and chief leader writer. He has won several journalism awards in Northern Ireland and has been a runner-up in the British Press awards for his weekly column. He contributes to newspapers and magazines in Ireland, Scotland and the USA. He wrote the first biography of John Hume whom he encountered before and during his coverage of the 1968-9 civil rights campaign.
It is clear that after the initial goodwill and optimism reflected in the positive vote for the Referendum and Belfast Agreement in Northern Ireland, a general sense of unease and perhaps mistrust has appeared, especially within the Unionist community there. To date these sentiments have tended to be articulated through radio and television 'soundbites'. More often than not these have depicted the Unionist community in terms of intransigence and obstructiveness. Of equal importance, is that such sources of information tend to reinforce the strong perception in the Republic of Ireland (and I suspect, elsewhere) that the Unionist population is a homogenous group. This is simply not the case. I have become convinced that this depiction, at the very least, gives a far from accurate picture of the range of views within that community and fails to do justice to either the character or mood of the Unionist community as a whole.
It was my intention as editor to seek accounts which, for the first time, might illuminate the diversity which exists within what might be described broadly as the ‘Unionist community’. It is becoming clear that this community feels that they have been badly and, in many cases, wrongly depicted. These accounts will go quite some way to redress this by allowing for reasoned and rational positions to be articulated by representatives of various sections of that community. The objective is that they will make a contribution to a more effective understanding of reactions to the rate and direction in which the peace process is proceeding. The contributors present perspectives from backgrounds in politics, the media, education, religion and community work.
The appropriateness of someone from a Nationalist background editing such a work might well be questioned. In the context of identity (and some would argue, ethnicity) it may be argued that I would lack an understanding of, and empathy for, the unionist psyche. This may well be so, but I doubt if such a uni-dimentional phenomenon exists. In addition, I feel there are advantages in casting a detached eye over the editing process. This is not to suggest that, in keeping with everyone else in Northern Ireland, I am not ‘blessed’ with my own stereotypes and certainties. However, the editing process made me more aware (and therefore more careful) of these.
A further concern is that the title of the book may give the impression that the conflict in Northern Ireland is fundamentally a religious one. I have always argued against such an assertion. However, more recently, I have come to believe that religion, or rather religious labels ("the Protestant people of Northern Ireland") are playing an increasingly important part, not only in the conflict, but also in the emerging peace process. I think this applies more on the Protestant ‘side’. One of the reasons for this might be that, since the Implementation of the state of Northern Ireland in 1921, there has been a comforting unity among the Unionist community simply in being unionist. Duncan Morrow claims that Unionist internal unity was seen as a prerequisite of all successful politics, understood in practice as Protestant domination of the key instruments of power. However, over these past years, and certainly since the Good Friday Agreement, this unity has been under increasing pressure. Splits and fragmentation have emerged on issues such as police reform, decommissioning, sharing power with Sinn Fein and the parades issue. In even more recent times, similar divisions have appeared for different reasons between the various loyalist paramilitary groups. All of this has taken place in the context of what Morrow refers to as increasing British indifference. One of the consequences is that currently, being unionist may imply divergence rather than cohesion. In fact, in terms of a shared identity, perhaps the only unifying thread which now exists is a Protestant background and culture. It is this which I perceive to be being increasingly stressed in claims and counterclaims in Northern Ireland.
Much has happened in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement, the holding of the referendum and the setting up of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It has been argued by several of the contributors that the Protestant community did not fully appreciate the full implications of the Agreement when they contributed to such a highly positive response of the referendum. They now feel that they are giving everything and getting nothing in return. They have conceded, or been forced to concede, on issues such as the early release of prisoners, the re-routing of marches, the introduction of North-South structures and the Government of the Republic of Ireland having a say in their affairs. Many are feeling what might be described as the ‘pain of parity’ to be unbearable. But what action can they take?
I think that most action and reaction in this context can best be understood in the context of Identity. I am treating the concept here in terms of identity with rather than identity of individuals and groups. What is important therefore is the extent to which the different cultural groups have related to (and therefore, identified with) institutional and legal structures, State bodies and, when it existed, the Northern Ireland Government itself. Basically, of interest here are the differential perceptions of services (and forces) and policy making bodies, either as natural and effective support systems or meddlesome and perhaps discriminatory intruders. It is this aspect which gives most insight into the civic and social behaviour of the major cultural groups.
This approach to identity is obviously political in nature and is best understood in terms of the circumstances precipitating and nurturing the conflict in Northern Ireland. In this context, the implementation of the State was carried out almost exclusively by Protestants. The Roman Catholic population, most of whom being convinced that the system would not last, took little part in proceedings and were content to await its inevitable demise. The fact that the State proved rather more durable than anticipated had two main implications. In the first place, Catholics were badly represented at policy making levels and secondly, more concern was afforded to Protestant aspirations and values in the formation of legislation and administrative structures. Since the power base was indisputably Protestant in nature, it resulted in further avoidance by Catholics and reciprocal suspicion and exclusion of them by Government. Positive identity on the one hand and alienation and separatism on the other have become deep-rooted over the years.
These differential institutional identities remind us of the concept of the Nation/State. This has become a popular area of discussion, especially since the breakdown of the former USSR and the subsequent efforts of satellite states to attain autonomy. Within these discussions, the State is most often defined in terms of geographical boundaries with politics, law and citizenship being essential elements. The Nation on the other hand is a construction based on elements such culture, ethnicity and identity and sometimes religion. Simply put, Statehood implies citizenship, while Nationality suggests ethnic affiliation. It is claimed that a Nation/State exists when all those living within the boundaries of a state identify with it, i.e. a polity where territorial/judicial boundaries coincide with ethnic boundaries. While France and Spain are often put forward as examples, I doubt if such an attribution is either appropriate or attainable and I rather suspect the Bretons and Basques would agree. Returning to a point made earlier; in general, Unionists in Northern Ireland identify with the State and relate to it as their Nation. Nationalists differ on both counts in identifying with an all-Ireland entity and viewing that as their natural Nation. Caird (1995) argues that there are occasions when national identity can be argued to supersede the requirement of submission to the prescription of the State, in various aspects of public life. There have been times in the histories of most European nations when the State has placed a restriction on some of their citizens in giving total expression of their national identity. Nationalists might point to the selective Flags and Emblems Act in this regard while the Orange Order might cite the restriction of their traditional freedom to walk the Garvaghy Road. However, problems tend to emerge when the emblems of power and authority of one group are paraded as tokens of national identity and are used to evoke a chauvinistic expression of that identity. It is not difficult to find examples of such action ‘on both sides’ in recent months and years.
A major consequence of all of this was that emerging political structures and institutions were equated by Catholics with a Protestant establishment and as such to be distrusted or at least, treated with caution. The structures not only provided tangible evidence of a Protestant ascendancy but also, to a minority, ‘legitimate targets’. For Protestants on the other hand, there are few such targets, in any sense of the word. Since, within that community there is a general identity with state structures, an assault on any of them is in fact an attack on themselves. Thus we see the recent contradictory and, for outsiders, paradoxical demonstrations of the Orange Order in blocking the Queens highway in order to demonstrate their freedom to march on it or coming into conflict with the very police force which they so strenuously defend.
It is difficult to see how such protests can advance the cause of Protestants either in the context of marches or in terms of what is seen as more general human rights or political issues. Although problematic, it would seem that the priority now is to search for alternative strategies. In subsequent chapters, contributors consider such strategies and their possible consequences. Chris Gibson for example, cites Sugarman’s optimistic claim that
Duncan Morrow, on the other hand, in Chapter one, presents a rather more sombre picture in claiming that while all Unionists are agreed on the goal of opposing Nationalism and upholding the relationship with Britain, the strategic and tactical consequences of this allegiance split the Unionist parties and their voters into two increasingly bitter blocs. In his view, Protestant security lies not in exclusivism or in reliance on the British State, but rather in a new and untested relationship with Catholics and Nationalism in Ireland. He concedes however, that emotionally, government with Republicans remains counter-intuitive and undesirable for many.
Gregory Campbell, in Chapter five goes further in contending that the Unionist population perceive the process unfolding before them as the culmination of many years preparation by the Nationalist/Republican community. He argues that the Unionist people are now being patronised through promises of a brighter future, if only they will co-operate in their own demise.
Chris Gibson, in Chapter two, sees the future of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland in terms of good governance. This concept takes in the State but transcends it to include civil society and the private sector. Within this approach, all three strands are critical: the State creates a conducive and legal environment; civil society facilitates political and social interaction by mobilising groups to participate in economic, social and political activities; and the private sector generates jobs and income. It is to the latter that Chris gives most attention. He argues that the business community is not isolated from constitutional and political issues dealt with in the Belfast Agreement and must play an integral and fundamental role in the evolution of the new society which we hope to create.
May Blood, in Chapter three, emphasises the role of civil society in the peace-building process. She argues that rather than initiatives which the various governments have put together, it has been committed community people that have made the most significant contribution to holding the community together. There is nothing that the two communities cannot achieve by working together. She argues that in the past, community action has been either sidelined or ignored by elected politicians and that the proposed new Civic Forum, if properly organised, will provide a platform for community activists for the first time. She, like Gregory Campbell, feels that the Churches have made ‘little or no’ contribution to peace and that they have in fact let the Protestant people down.
Robin Eames, on the other hand, in Chapter four, argues that the period of the Peace Process has not been an easy chapter for the main Protestant Churches in Northern Ireland. During the years of violence pastoral support for victims, condemnation of the endless cycle of injury and death, seemingly endless funerals and appeals for an end to the mayhem co-existed at an official level with calls for political action to fill the vacuum. Once the first tentative steps towards dialogue emerged, the Churches appeared less confident in their official utterances. He emphasises that leadership is not confined to the representation of opinion: it calls for prophetic utterance.
Barry White, in Chapter six, again, highlights the diversity among the Protestant community, ranging from the born-again to the ‘devoutly secular’ and retaining all the Presbyterian characteristics of individualism and non-conformism. In addition, there exists within the broad Protestant Community a largely apolitical section of the middle-class which does not identify with the stereotypes of Unionism or Nationalism. He sees the main political effect of the process so far as introducing more splits into the Unionist family while Nationalists have remained comparatively stable. He raises the possibility that within a generation, there could be a democratic majority in Northern Ireland demanding either a much closer association with the Republic of Ireland, or indeed formal unity. He also cites another scenario wherein, since the Unionist majority is dwindling, Protestants might become increasingly defensive of their British identity and culture, at the same time as Catholics become more assertive. He suggests that it is just possible that Northern Ireland’s ‘split identity problem’ may have found a unique solution in its all-inclusive executive.
Underlying all of these accounts is the concept of diversity in terms of politics, religion and identity. These differences would seem not simply to exist between the major cultural groups, but also to obtain within them. In this context, the main task of the Northern Ireland Assembly, in attempting to develop a state more acceptable to all, might be to moderate these definitions of identity and accommodate different perceptions of nationhood.
Caird, A. R. (1985), Protestantism and National Identity, Belfast: Co-operation North.
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