Not again! I thought we’d got beyond all that. Are we going back to the old days. Are the jobs going to disappear? Do they not realise what they’re doing?

Day after day of protests, riots, stone throwing, petrol bombs, attacks on the police, illegal parades.  It’s all so very familiar if you were around at the beginning of the troubles. And the places are the same: Albertbridge Road, Lower Newtownards Road, the Short Strand. The slogans may be focused on something different, the controversy over the flying of the flag on the City Hall in Belfast, but they expose the presence of familiar attitudes.

It’s easy to condemn those involved rather than try to understand them.  However the cause of the unrest is a complicated one, and needs proper political attention. But what the flags protests reveal, more than anything else, is that the Protestant paradox is alive and well and living in Ulster.

Those involved in the protests are concerned about an erosion of their British culture and their British heritage. This heritage may be very narrowly defined as the right to fly flags, even to brandish them, and the right to parade where parades have traditionally gone. While narrow, it would be unreasonable to object to this desire to retain one’s identity as one sees it. The defence and expression of one’s political views is legitimate in a democracy, provided it is undertaken within the law.

However, many of those involved in the protests see themselves as not only defending their British identity, but as defending Protestantism. The paradox is a familiar one.  Many of the Protestants who wish to defend Protestantism seem to have left it behind. Their fight is not for the key doctrines of the Reformation: the centrality of scripture, salvation by faith in Christ alone through the grace of God alone. Many Protestants do not know the bible, do not read it, have not sought (or found) salvation in Christ and have little time for God. Moreover the right of Protestants to worship is not in question. We are free to preach the doctrines of grace. The division caused by the Reformation remains, but too many who use the term Protestant seem to have forgotten what it really means.  The name Protestant remains as a symbol, for many, of division, but is empty of its true content, the desire to love God and to serve Him.

Secularism and the process of secularisation take many faces in the West. Protestant secularism in Northern Ireland has been exposed by the recent flags controversy, by the worship of our British heritage above everything else, to be placed alongside the preoccupations of those in leafy suburbia. Protestant secularism is just as much a working class as a middle class phenomenon.  God is left behind, disregarded by a concentration on the here and now.

That is the saddest thing about the recent events: the fact that many do not base their lives on the authority of scripture, have not placed their faith in Christ and are not seeking to live for Him and His glory alone through grace.  For that is what the Reformation was about in the first place, wasn’t it?

John Gillespie

John Gillespie is Professor of French Language and Literature at the University of Ulster and a Presbyterian Elder.