One major sphere of interest and concern that has always attracted serious attention in the Irish Nationalist/Republican sector is that of culture and heritage.
This is indeed a sphere in which the minority population of Northern Ireland has been, already, very proactive for many years, but one in which the majority has shown only a reactive or passive interest to date. The result has been a significant series of perceived gains on the Irish Nationalist front and losses on the British Unionist front – for example, the promotion of the Irish language, the problemisation of long standing majority rights, the retrospective challenging of past appointment and selection procedures in the work place – all of which have had, and will continue to have, the effect of increasingly enhancing pan-nationalist solidarity while discouraging and marginalizing the majority population, which in the larger context of Ireland as a whole is really a large minority. Significantly there has been a call for a revision in the Republic of Irish history books in the schools in the name of lending greater impetus to the movement for national unity.
The long history of Protestantism in Ireland has been given scant attention throughout the whole period since the establishment of Northern Ireland, and such notions as there are of the Protestant past tend to deal in terms of “ascendancy”, taking little or no account of the real hardships endured by much of the Protestant population before and after the setting up of the Irish Republic and the establishment of Northern Ireland in 1922. On both sides of the religious divide the experience of suffering and the sense of injustice handed down from the past have given rise to emotionalised positions of principle which lay claim to absolute historical truth.
However, such claims tend, for the most part, to be an over simplification, and hence a distortion, of past reality. Nevertheless, distortion or not, each side has tended to lend strong emotional support to its own particular view of history, and in doing so has perpetuated a polarisation of society which has been used as a validation for those who see violence and/or polemical sectarianism as the best means of achieving gains or preventing losses in terms of both real and supposed historical experience.
On the British Unionist side the awareness of the past has been so grossly oversimplified as to consist almost solely of the celebration of one single event which occurred over three-hundred years ago, crucially important as it is- The Battle of the Boyne, seen as the victory of Protestantism over Catholicism. This is a reductionist view which does not hold up well under scrutiny, since it takes no account of the broader political issues of the day or of the fact that a key element of the victorious Williamite forces were in fact Roman Catholic, the pro-Williamite army of Balldearg O’Donnell. However, in its simple reductionism it has been made the whole of the notion of Protestant culture and heritage in Northern Ireland on both sides of the religious divide. This makes the issue of traditional marches so important to the majority population, while the minority sees the same issue as representative of domination and injustice, not only since the setting up of Northern Ireland, but throughout the many centuries of British governance of the whole island of Ireland.
The result is that conflict over the marching issue has become inevitable, with each side having a degree of justification in its own mind taking up a strong position either pro or contra. Protestant history and culture are a great deal more complex than this one event, just as British Unionism as a political philosophy is much more complex than usually perceived. The chief problem is that little or no attempt has been made to establish a means of making the whole population aware of this – to the great detriment of the society as a whole.
Irish Nationalist history and culture too, through constantly fostered elements within the consciousness of the minority population of Northern Ireland, have been prone to oversimplification and distortion, partly because of a sense of historical grievance, but partly because they have existed in a vacuum. There has been no real attempt by the majority population to make known the realities of the Protestant past in terms of origins, suffering, aspirations, achievements, successes and failures. Protestant culture has a long history of self-discipline, renunciation, distrust of pleasure and siege mentality, and these together have led to an approach to life which is often viewed with distaste and impatience by those who have little or no understanding of it.
Thus both religious traditions, the one by ignoring the fullness of its own history and culture, the other by not being made aware of any history and culture other than its own, have impoverished and imperilled in an ongoing way the possibility of co-existence based on mutual understanding and respect. We have now been offered the opportunity, through the recent Hillsborough Agreement, for this situation to be rectified, and it is of great importance that steps be taken as soon as possible.
If the majority population of Northern Ireland is to maximise its political potential in the very important months and years immediately ahead, close attention must be paid to enabling the adherents of British Unionism of whatever religious persuasion to feel increasing pride and commitment to their cultural past as a basis for a constructive future. They must be helped to explore their roots, their struggles and their achievements, as well as to develop a coherent sense of pride in the contributions made by both ancestors and their contemporaries to the development of Ulster history. In order to do so a clear and detailed cultural policy is required, a policy of truthful analysis, yet one of celebration, which will both inform and buttress the majority population in a period of change which many are likely to find unsettling at best and highly threatening at worst.
Cultural policy for the Unionist majority in Northern Ireland must in no sense to be construed as an attack on the minority population. Rather, it should be viewed as a clarification and confirmation of the British Unionist identity in the context of ten thousand years of life in Ireland. It should seek to look to the future on the basis of both past and present, a future in which the several traditions in Ulster have a significant role to play, but one in which majority perspectives are clearly perceived as worthy of respect and ongoing good stewardship.
Central to British Unionist history is the ancient tradition of the Brytenwalda, which means “ruler of Britain” and all its islands, including Ireland, ie the British Realm. This was early accepted by the Papacy, who wished to extend church control by means of royal authority over the whole of the British Isles. It remains an essential element of the British Monarchy’s claim to rule over all Britain, ie Little Britain or Ireland, including Ulster, and Great Britain or Albion, including England, Scotland and Wales.
As Honorary Historian of the Ulster Unionist Party, and Senior Advisor on History and Culture to Rt Hon Dr Ian Paisley, MP, MLA I have been honoured to have been asked to chair the newly established Grand Unionist Centenary Committee, which has representation from the DUP, UUP, TUV, PUP, the Black, Orange and Independent Orange Institutions, the Apprentice Boys of Derry, the 36th Ulster Division Memorial and the Band Associations and which will help to coordinate and advise on future Commemorative events. At the same time we will emphasise the whole breadth of our great Ulster, British and Unionist tradition.