Northern Protestants at a crossroads

The North has changed dramatically, and unionism, instead of celebrating the centenary of the foundation of the Northern Irish state it used to dominate, is in crisis

Anton Thompson McCormick above the beach at Ballycastle. As a teenager he had heard Iris Robinson, then the chair of Stormont’s health committee, on BBC Radio Ulster, declaring that her Christian beliefs told her that homosexuality was “an abomination”.

"It's a limed nest, this place, I see a plain
Presbyterian grace sour, then harden,
As a free strenuous spirit changes
To a servile defiance.../ shouts
For the Big Man to lead his wee people
To a clean white prison, their scorched tomorrow."
(from Desertmartin by Tom Paulin)

Anna McCallion is a hill farmer on Knocklayde mountain in Ballycastle, Co Antrim. She would never think of herself as a revolutionary but when she declared her solidarity with her gay nephew in my company over lunch in Antrim's Bushmills Hotel, I saw her bring a "free generous spirit" to bear on a situation which had suddenly and profoundly challenged her.

Anna is Presbyterian, and when I asked her what she thought of her church’s hostility to same-sex marriage, given Anton’s being gay, it became apparent that the two had never discussed Anton’s sexual orientation. This despite his having brought his boyfriend, David, to meet her, and talking about him all the time.

In the hotel, over mountains of steaming Sunday carvery meats, Anna had risen to the occasion with remarkable grace.


“I’m from another generation,” she said. “But just because of how I was brought up, I couldn’t say, ‘No, I don’t like Anton now, I don’t want him’....I’d still have to stand by him.”

She added that the church had no business getting involved in such matters.

“You go to church to hear the word of God, not to be judged.”

It was no wonder, she reflected, that the churches were emptying.

“The young ones all go off to university and don’t come back.”

Anna’s mother, Anton’s grandmother, whose farm Anna has inherited, used to scale Knocklayde mountain with Anton when he was a child, talking to him about grace as the need to answer to the God in everyone. She also taught him how to use make-up and would give dresses and her own mother’s hats to a local labourer who was transgender.

“She was as much part of the life of the mountain as the trees and the sheep that she so loved...She loved giving people a good time,” Anton said.

Anna had her mother's independent spirit. She was not political, she insisted, but when people told her that the Reverend Ian Paisley was "a great man" she quietly demurred.

“I just thought, aye, well I’ll form my own opinion here,” she told me. (Martin McGuinness was, in her estimation, “a bad rascal”.)

Moved by his aunt's generosity, Anton told her about how as a teenager he had heard Iris Robinson, then the chair of Stormont's health committee, on BBC Radio Ulster, declaring that her Christian beliefs told her that homosexuality was "an abomination". She went on to advocate conversion therapy (pseudoscientific attempts to change sexual orientation).

In 2019 Conor Mitchell’s glorious Abomination: A DUP Opera was performed at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, its script based on transcripts from the infamous interview, which had been conducted by the controversial journalist Stephen Nolan at his ruthless best. Anton now lives in Brighton and has found a home for his “religious sensibility” with the Quakers.

A motion calling for the banning of conversion therapy, brought to Stormont in April by the Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie was passed. The DUP opposed it. First Minister Arlene Foster's abstention was cited as one of the reasons her party went on to oust her as leader.

It does not take much to be perceived as too liberal by the DUP, particularly the fundamentalist element to which the new leader, Edwin Poots belongs. Beattie has become the new leader of the UUP, signalling that it may make a late bid to offer a progressive unionist alternative.

A recent opinion poll showed support for the DUP has plummeted from 32 per cent a year and half ago to 16 per cent, neck and neck with the Alliance Party, with Sinn Féin on 25 per cent.

Already, with the results of a new census imminent, it is only among the over-60s that Protestants are in a significant majority. Already, unionism does not have a majority at Stormont. The North has changed dramatically, and unionism, instead of spending 2021 celebrating the centenary of the foundation of the Northern Irish state it used to dominate, is in crisis.

Anna and Anton are two of the people I interviewed for my book Northern Protestants – On Shifting Ground.

It snowed this Easter as I was correcting the proofs of the book. My phone filled up with video clips from riots in Belfast, Derry and Carrickfergus, masked men marching through the streets of Portadown. I watched a wild boy with red hair repeatedly slam a blue wheelie bin into a police Land Rover. I read a press photographer's account of how he had been attacked by two men at one of the riots. They told him to "f*ck off you Fenian c*nt".

Men who had been stirring for a return to violence for months showed teenagers how to make petrol bombs, then stood cheering on the footpaths like dads at a school sports day. They did grim interviews in which they blamed the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and said it must be scrapped. An attempt is being made to groom and radicalise a new generation of boys to believe in violence and sectarian hatred.

It snowed at Easter in 1998 as well, when I began working on my 2000 book Northern Ireland – An Unsettled People. Back then the snow had a magical quality. The politicians emerged into it from weeks of talks, years of negotiations and backroom diplomacy, bleary and exultant, with the Belfast Agreement.

"We firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all," said its preamble. "We are committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between these islands."

I remember holding my breath on the BBC radio programme Talkback as David Ervine, the leader of the pro-agreement Progressive Unionist Party, began his commentary on An Unsettled People with, "The problem I had with this book was . . ." I was relieved when he continued, ". . . that it was true and frightening and painful."

In contrast, the Grand Master of the Independent Orange Order, George Dawson, said that no one should read the book. It was, in his view, just not worth it. I was called “a Lundy”, a traitor.

A recent opinion poll showed support for the DUP has plummeted from 32 per cent a year and half ago to 16 per cent, neck and neck with the Alliance Party, with Sinn Féin on 25 per cent. Photograph: Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images

A man told me that reading the book had “almost” ruined his holiday on a yacht in Turkey. Two men edited a book in which they dismissed mine as “a deeply self-flagellating tome” and a “personal exorcism of Protestant self-loathing”. But Barry White wrote in the Belfast Telegraph that it had “dug deep into a damaged psyche”.

Two decades later, with the centenary on its way and Brexit looming along with the prospect of a Border poll, it seemed timely to return to look again at the views and feelings of Northern Protestants. The new DUP leader harks back to the old days. Poots tried to sectarianise the pandemic, falsely claiming that while his community was abiding by the rules, others were not, and that Covid was far more prevalent in nationalist areas.

It queasily echoed his late father's recommendation in 1975 that Catholic areas should be denied water, electricity and social security. It was, said DUP founder Charles Poots, the "only way to deal with enemies of the state".

In 2019, a pastor I interviewed spoke of “lesser breeds”. A DUP MP complained of too many black people on the BBC’s Songs of Praise TV programme.

There are claims that it is unionists who now need a civil rights movement, that we have “two-tier policing”. The DUP seems intent on reigniting a sense of grievance to provide a revival of unionist dominance.

But there are other influences at work now. Women who have held communities together through generations of disadvantage are demanding a voice in public life. As Eileen Weir put it to me, “working class women are streets ahead of the politicians”.

Former DUP leader Rev Ian Paisley whose paraty led opposition to the Good Friday Agreement. Photograph: Stephen Davison.

Playwright and filmmaker Stacey Gregg, whose work shatters all the binaries, pointed out that the young are digital natives who have access to a far wider range of ideas than those that informed their parents' imaginations.

Teenager Rebecca Crockett lives on the Border and attended an integrated school her late father helped set up in Derry. She told me it did not enter her head to consider whether her friends were Catholic or Protestant. It was irrelevant. She was far more concerned about global climate justice than the constitutional question.

In Belfast, Alan McBride, well known as a campaigner for the rights of victims of the conflict, talked to me about the need to enable people to change and stop defining them via the past. He wanted a “generous unionism” and if he could not find it, could imagine living in a unified Ireland.

The cover of On Shifting Ground has a photograph by Trevor McBride of the face of the effigy of Lundy, which is burned every December in my home city of Derry. Lundy was the governor of Derry in 1689. He believed the city could not withstand a siege and wanted to negotiate a surrender with the Catholic forces of King James.

The shout of “no surrender” still suffices as a political credo for some within unionism. But Northern Ireland is filling up with Lundys. Defiant, yes, but neither sour nor servile, and definitely not looking for another “Big Man” to lead us.

Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground is published by Blackstaff Press along with a reissue of Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People, also by Susan McKay