Beating the wrong drum

The dogmatic insistence that unionists are being pushed towards a united Ireland

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Just after Israel’s disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Amos Oz went searching for internal enemies within his own Jewish tribe. The late Israeli novelist, former solider and long-term advocate of peace with Palestinians sought out not only Arabs across the “Green Line” but also fellow Israelis who regarded Oz as at best a naive peacenik or at worse a traitor.

Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground by Susan McKay, Blackstaff Press, £16.99

Oz’s encounters with Jewish settlers on the West Bank aligned to the Arab-hating “Gush Emumim” or “Bloc of the Faithful” or the anti-Zionist Orthodox Hasidim are particularly memorable for the way the writer holds back his own disdain and allows their words to flow with barely an interruption. His two-month trek into settlements, towns and villages in the autumn of 1982 produced his non-fiction masterpiece, In The Land Of Israel.

Reading Oz less than a decade later in preparation for visits to Israel and Lebanon I was struck by the parallels between the Israeli Jews he interviewed and that other spiky, long out-of-fashion, media-suspicious people at the furthest edge of Europe — Ulster Protestants. Oz’s classic snapshot of a country and a people in perpetual existential turmoil is a model for something waiting to be written about Northern Ireland’s unionists. Susan McKay’s new work, Northern Protestants On Shifting Ground, is not that book.

Its core problem is her dogmatic insistence that unionists/loyalists are being pushed by forces of demography and history towards a united Ireland whether they like it or not. Yet McKay justifies this hoary old thesis, which has knocked round some leftist and liberal circles almost since the Northern Ireland state was created 100 years ago, with the flimsiest of anecdotal evidence. Her book lacks cold, hard facts, especially in relation to credible opinion polls.

The tragedy of books suborned to political enthusiasm is that tendentious overarching assumptions can pervert

That 56 per cent of the population voted to remain in the EU during the 2016 Brexit referendum is taken by McKay as a supposed sign that the gig is up among more liberal, middle-class pro-European educated Protestants. She insists the decline in the vote for unionist parties is proof positive that support for Irish unity is somehow surging.

In fact, as successive opinion polls from the Brexit referendum onwards show, support for the union remains solid (and at the 60 per cent mark, comfortably in excess of Scottish support for the union).

We can but laugh at those anti-Brexit media and political voices who suddenly and improbably declared themselves tragic unionists, heartbroken that leaving the EU had done the grand old cause in. Brexit has done nothing to weaken pro-Union sentiment.

Such consistent majority support for the union evidently gave McKay zero pause for thought. She relentlessly pursues her decades-old line about the Union’s supposed doom, either through her own words or the helpful voices of those she interviews.

The tragedy of books suborned to political enthusiasm is that tendentious overarching assumptions can pervert. In this instance, commendable field work and a number of brilliant, beautifully composed passages of human interest.

McKay lets Kyle Black speak about his prison officer father David, who was murdered by the New IRA in an ambush on his way to work nine years ago. This remarkable young man not only lost his father to cold hearted assassins but also, like the rest of his family, suffered the taunts and sneers of their supporters.

Last year the Black family went to lay flowers at the spot where David was killed and there was pro-IRA graffiti on a road sign at the murder site. And yet Kyle Black tells McKay he still draws deep comfort from “the boxes of letters and cards” expressing sympathy from Catholics and Protestants alike.

They even included, Kyle noted, communications from Irish republicans who had been in jails his father served in over his 30-plus years in the prison service “saying they were disgusted at what happened. They (republicans) had always found him to be fair and respectful.”

Black stood as a candidate for the Democratic Unionists, a party McKay excoriates because its views are not her views — let us not beat around the bush here. Lacking empathetic insight, she can explain to neither herself nor her readers how or why the DUP became the dominant force within unionist politics and how even some middle class, liberal Protestants started voting for it from the mid 2000s onwards. The author fails to properly amplify general, genuine unionist fear and mistrust of Sinn Fein and the IRA Army Council that is still the ultimate power behind that party. From her writing you could even believe that she does not know this to be the case.

McKay obsesses over the decline in votes for traditional unionist parties, but the genuinely interesting reason for this is largely unexplored. A vast swathe of the pro-Union electorate is secularising and liberalising, and cannot currently find a political home. However, polls consistently show these non-voters remain solidly pro-Union. Thus, the core task for the new DUP and UUP leaders (Jeffrey Donaldson and Doug Beattie) is to appeal to pro-union people who are turned off by the moral policing of private life or whatever is leaving them cold about both main unionist parties.

McKay has the skills to have written a book representative of its subject but chose not to

In relation to the UUP under David Trimble, McKay tellingly lets one of her contributors off with a gross misrepresentation of his leadership. Dawn Purvis, former leader of the UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party, puts forward a ludicrous explanation for why Trimble and his party were eclipsed by the DUP.

On the Belfast Agreement, Purvis opines: “Trimble was a disaster. He had to be dragged kicking and screaming to it every time … But instead of being a driving force, out there selling this as something unionism should embrace, it was always bad news. He didn’t lead. He didn’t bring his party with him.”

Really? There was the rest of us who reported on the Good Friday Agreement’s creation and the subsequent demise of Trimble’s UUP thinking it was all to do with Tony Blair chucking him under a bus while throwing concessions towards the IRA/Sinn Fein.

The main fault of this book, however, is its cast list. McKay evokes the memory of Robert Lundy, the “traitor” who wanted to surrender Protestant Derry in 1689 to the besieging army of James II. Thirteen apprentices defied Lundy, the governor of the city, and shut the gates against the Jacobites. Every December since, his effigy is burned and his name has become synonymous with treachery. In the the Epilogue she proudly boasts: “I am reconciled to my Lundyism.”

The self-love here isn’t artfully disguised, but then nor are different forms of desire found anywhere in this hymn to Irish nationalism. McKay has the skills to have written a book representative of its subject but chose not to. We know her views: reading this, you’d have no idea what the views of most of Ulster’s unionists are.

To return to In The Land of Israel, were Amos Oz was alive today and poised to write a follow-up on the McKay path, you’d read all about his fellow leftist Kibbutzniks and the secular sun and surf worshippers along the Tel Aviv shoreline.

To return to the Siege of Derry, there are too many “Lundys” speaking throughout McKay’s book and not enough of the “Apprentices” of the type who shut the gates against King James II’s besieging forces in 1689. And if the author is genuine about a “shared future” on the island of Ireland rather than union with Britain then perhaps it would have been better if her concluding epilogue implored Irish nationalism to do one single thing in the interests of peace and pluralism: Lift the siege.

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