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Northern Protestants: A gravitational pull towards the future

Book review: Susan McKay leaves no stereotype of northern Protestants unchallenged

Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground
Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground
Author: Susan McKay
ISBN-13: 9781780732640
Publisher: Blackstaff Press
Guideline Price: £16.99

Cometh the crisis, cometh the insight. At a time when many unionists appear to be winding their watches backwards, Susan McKay brings us beneath the surface, tuning into the frequencies of northern Protestant lives as they are really lived. Her new book reveals a gravitational pull towards the future. We meet northern Protestants embracing, promoting, fearing and resisting change. But all are swept up in its current.

A lot has changed in the 21 years since McKay’s Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People was published. There is more talk now of diversity. Openness about mixed relationships. A willingness, sometimes from unexpected quarters, to have conversations about Irish unity. McKay talks to free-thinking DUP politicians who defy the boxes others might seek to put them into. An Orangeman whose kids attend an integrated school. No stereotype is left unchallenged.

Some voices echo the besiegement of the earlier book. Staunch DUP politicians, apocalyptic preachers and conservative unionist students who feel off kilter at Queen’s University Belfast. It is interesting how wider culture wars, Trump and American evangelicalism punctuate these local narratives.

Strong women form the spine of McKay’s book. Like Toni Ogle, standing up to the masked men who murdered her father in 2018. Like Stacey Gregg, queer playwright, who has returned to the North and is “emancipating herself from restrictions arising from shame.” Like “Ellen”, who talks about the sexual abuse she suffered in the rural Loyal Orders. This is powerful reading, as McKay walks alongside these women taking back agency, telling their stories in their own words.


Trauma piles up in the book like layered sediments of earth

One of the most moving moments of the book comes early, when, with McKay’s help, Anton Thompson-McCormick comes out to his aunt Anna over lunch in a Ballycastle hotel. Aunt Anna’s response is gentle and accepting. Later, McKay and Anton visit the Rev Godfrey Brown, whose sermons Anton loved as a boy. Anton had sent him a novel, which he hoped would prompt conversation. But Brown said he still thought homosexuality was wrong.

McKay creates space for Anton to tell the reverend about his own experiences and, in so doing, the dynamics of the encounter are utterly transformed.

It pays to read this book tenderly because many participants are still devastated by the conflict. While some victims emerge as agents of change, others remain incapacitated by pain. Trauma piles up like layered sediments of earth. A “pram bomb” is mentioned in passing. Alex Bunting tells a “funny story” (his words) of a £1 coin lodged behind one of his amputated legs. One bereaved woman tells McKay: “It’s festered on and on with us.”

I was not expecting sports coaches and youth workers to emerge as the leaders and healers of young northern Protestants. Grassroots grafters who talk about mental health, austerity, body image, isolation, drugs, hopelessness and suicide. But who also talk about healthiness, hope and purpose.

Despite the frequent divisiveness of sport in the North, McKay shows how it can also deactivate sectarianism. Danielle McDowell, head of women’s and girls football at Crusaders, explains why she stands up for the Soldier’s Song when they play clubs in nationalist areas – “when in Rome.”

Business people appear often. Hauliers, hoteliers, farmers, importers, exporters. Most are pragmatists who preferred Theresa May’s Brexit, and are trying to make the Northern Ireland Protocol work in a volatile situation. Nurses weave through many of the stories, at once a reminder of all that is good about the NHS, and a caution that it is not itself in good health.

The writing is so vital that reading the book feels like a speed dating session, all hearts worn on sleeves

One group McKay could not fully crack is the new wave of loyalist paramilitaries. One keyboard warrior gives a terse anonymous online interview. Dee Stitt, a UDA commander, outlines his abbreviated reality. But the surrounding interviews more than fill in the gaps: Jenni, the mother whose son’s life became overwhelmed by UVF drug debt; Kyle, who watched the recent riots but did not participate; Russell Watton, a PUP councillor who is angry but says there is no appetite for war; Eileen Weir, who talks about the women’s sector having to compete with male ex-paramilitary groups for funding; loyalist community workers making up food parcels who distrust the media and will not speak with McKay.

The writing is deft and immediate, seamlessly weaving together personal stories and political events with deep emotional intelligence. The writing is so vital that reading the book feels like a speed dating session, all hearts worn on sleeves. It is impossible not to be moved by the sum of these encounters.

Occasionally, we hear McKay’s own voice. This reads as authentic intervention, nearly always empathetic, very occasionally scathing. I liked this. Locating herself in the work helps us know how to read the book.

The book’s cover is Trevor McBride’s photograph of Lundy, arch betrayer of Protestants, whose effigy is still burned in Derry each year. We are taken to the burnings. But the book is also about northern Protestants opting into the Lundies, transforming the meaning of the concept. After receiving criticism of her 2000 book from some quarters, McKay now opts in herself. “I am reconciled to my Lundyism. There are a lot of us, and I like the company.”

McKay has done all of us a huge favour. She has taken a subject encrusted with myth and re-tipped the scales. She has taken time to locate voices that are often unheard. Conservatives and radicals alike are presented as dignified, defiant, nuanced human beings. Having lived most of my life in majority Protestant areas of the North, the range of these voices feels authentic and representative.

Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground is vital reading in all senses of the word. It shows people changing and adapting, but with wounds far from healed over. Anyone with even a passing interest in Northern/Ireland’s future urgently needs to digest what Susan McKay has found and told.

Claire Mitchell is a former senior lecturer in sociology at QUB. She is currently working on a book about modern dissenters, reimagining the ideas of 1798 for the 21st century