‘Reflection on Northern Ireland at 100 years’
I was born into a Protestant and Unionist family in Ballymoney in 1953. Some family members were in the loyal orders and “B” Specials. Early in life I imbibed a unionist and orange mindset, but was brought up to treat everyone with respect. We had Roman Catholic neighbours and friends, and relationships were very good. Northern Ireland, to me, seemed a contented place.
When I was in my mid-teens, the Troubles erupted. Almost overnight, we descended from peace to street protest to full-blown terrorism. Like most Protestants, I wasn’t psychologically prepared. Rev Ian Paisley articulated my fears and concerns, and I quickly declared myself a Paisley man.
Dr Paisley was to have a big impact on me not only politically but also spiritually. I had always been a nominal Protestant, but I now became a committed evangelical Protestant, and my faith in Christ has been the primary driver in my life ever since. My unionism is multi-faceted, but I am a unionist primarily because of my desire to protect and promote my faith. Indeed, I am on record as saying that my loyalty to the British Throne is conditional on that Throne remaining Protestant.
When my forefathers signed the Ulster Covenant in 1912, their grounds for resisting Home Rule were both positive and negative. They were positive in the sense that they wanted to remain part of a United Kingdom that was prosperous and Protestant, and a British Empire that was majestic and glorious. Negatively, they were fearful of being annihilated in a Home Rule Ireland, which they regarded as antipathetic to their Protestant faith and their Britishness. To them Home Rule would be Rome Rule.
When Northern Ireland emerged in 1921, its future looked uncertain. However, one hundred years on, it has not only survived but it is in reasonable shape. It’s certainly a happier and more peaceful place than in 1971 when we marked its 50th anniversary at the height of a brutal IRA terrorist campaign which ultimately failed in its key objective of forcibly achieving a “united Ireland”. Sinn Fein now sit in government in a Northern Ireland Assembly within the UK.
But I’m under no illusions. All is not well, and it is incumbent upon us as Unionists to face certain realities. Although I voted to leave the EU, Brexit has been problematic for Northern Ireland. Some of my friends warned me that we would be betrayed by Boris Johnson and his English nationalist cronies, but I have been shocked by the extent of that betrayal, and it has made me question the value of a Union where we are simply not wanted. Indeed, we are being treated with contempt.
Brexit has also caused tensions within and between the component parts of the UK. Scotland might leave. English nationalism seems to be in the ascendancy. It’s entirely possible that the UK could break up.
Furthermore, and crucially, my forefathers fought to remain within a UK that no longer exists. The glue that held it together included Protestantism and Empire. The UK is now a secular society and the Empire has long gone. The Roman Catholic Home Rule Ireland that my forefathers feared, and were determined to resist, has been replaced by a largely secular and cosmopolitan society.
Add to that the demographics. The Protestant majority in Northern Ireland has evaporated, and we are faced with a set of circumstances that our forefathers wouldn’t recognise. The mantra of “united we stand” doesn’t really work anymore.
So, how do we respond? Some argue that we must be persuaders for the Union and try to convince Roman Catholics of its benefits. I am happy to promote the Union, but, deep down, I feel it is time for a proper discussion about future relationships within this island and between these islands.
I regard myself not only as a British citizen and an Ulsterman, but as an Irishman. I have an affection for Ireland, its history, heritage and culture. I certainly feel Irish, whereas I don’t feel Scottish, English or Welsh.
Ultimately, my Protestantism is more important to me than my Unionism, but nationalists and republicans have a lot of work to do to persuade me that I, as a Protestant Unionist, would be better off – or even welcome – in a united Ireland. It’s all very well for them to speak soft and honeyed words, but when I see, for example, the intolerance displayed towards Orange parades, I am far from convinced.
But I am up for the discussion. As I said recently in the “News Letter”, “It’s about future generations, and we need both sides to be able to listen to each other, and to seek to genuinely understand each other’s perspectives, concerns and expectations. In this centenary year there needs to be a meaningful, open and honest debate”.
Wallace Thompson is a retired civil servant, is an elder in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Secretary of the Evangelical Protestant Society, Chair of the Caleb Foundation and member of the Independent Orange Order. He is also a founder member of the DUP and served as a DUP Special Adviser. (The views expressed in his article are his own).