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Northern Protestants
An Unsettled People
Northern Protestants, An Unsettled People by Susan McKay
reviewed by Billy Mitchell


Outside of a few literary-minded individuals, and a number of academics who tend to focus on their own disciplines, very little has been written "for the people, by the people, or about the people" who make up the diverse Protestant community in Northern Ireland. "Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People", by journalist Susan Mc Kay, is an attempt provide a platform for ordinary Protestants to express their views and to tell part of their story.

The book has the value of being written by a northern Protestant who is genuinely interested to know what her own people have to say for themselves. It has the disadvantage of having been written by a journalist who sets the comments of her interviewees within the context of her own interpretative framework. At times Susan lets the people speak for themselves, at other times she appears to analyse and interpret what they are saying, and this doesn't always work.

There is a feeling amongst some Protestants that Ms Mc Kay's uneasiness with her own people have caused her to highlight the "bad" and to diminish the "good" that is to be found amongst them. Indeed some have suggested that what is "good" in terms of Biblical Protestantism would automatically be regarded as "bad" in the eyes of a self-confessed 'Protestant Agnostic'. This is probably true. But it is beside the point. The book is not supposed to be about Biblical Protestantism, it is supposed to be about those who come from a Protestant background, regardless of whether they practice the Faith or not.

I believe that the people interviewed by Mc Kay are fairly representative of the wider Protestant community, and that the book makes a useful contribution to the debate about Protestant identity. However I do have two concerns about the book. The first relates to the unfair imbalance between the focus on the pain inflicted by Protestants on nationalists and the pain inflicted on Protestants by nationalists. The Prologue to the book, which majors on two case studies of pain being inflicted by Protestants against Catholics should, in my opinion, have been balanced by case studies of the pain suffered by equally innocent Protestant families.

As a community we must face up to the fact that our people (myself included) have carried out some of the worse excesses of violence against our fellow citizens, but we must never allow the guilt of what some of us have done as an excuse for marginalizing the hurt and the pain that others within our community have suffered. Susan Mc Kay quotes from Mary Shelly's gothic novel, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, "Be calm! I entreat you to hear me before you give vent to your hatred on my devoted head . . . Remember that I am thy creature". 'Liberal' Protestants must never forget that those within our community who engaged in acts of violence are the creation of that community.

My second concern relates to the derogatory references to Mount Vernon housing estate. These are simply a repeat of the unsubstantiated tittle-tattle fed to local journalists by well-known begrudgers and felon setters. In a book that claims to break new ground in the search for understanding, the people of Mount Vernon are written off without any attempt to hear, let alone to understand, their story. Susan Mc Kay could do worse than read Michael Atcheson's "Mount Vernon: More Than a Mural".

On the whole I found that the views expressed throughout the book, and the stories told by its sixty-odd contributors, are ones that I hear week in and week out.. They are the views and experiences of ordinary people who have grown up in the cut and thrust of life across the Province. Opinions range from a raw anti-Catholic sectarianism to a colourless apologetic form of post-Protestantism that wishes it was something else.

There are some strong views about temporal and eternal realities that are rooted in a Calvinistic world-view as well as some equally strong opinions that are rooted in secular liberalism. There are indications of both Protestant agnosticism and, if there can be such a thing, Protestant atheism. Many express the hurt and the pain inflicted on them by violent nationalism while others express the guilt and the pain of belonging to a community whose members have inflicted pain on the Catholic community. Expressions of Irishness sit, sometimes easily and sometimes uneasily, alongside expressions of Britishness.

Susan Mc Kay's closing remarks are worth pondering, "There are monsters which have to be faced down, but there is much to be proud of too. There is much honest ground to stand on".

I would submit that the monsters that have to be faced down do not necessarily wield sledgehammers and carry assault rifles. The "ghost at the middle class table" will always find a working class body to possess in order to act out its hidden desires. Before we can genuinely stand on honest ground and face down the monsters we must exorcise the ghosts of sectarianism that haunt the leafy glades of suburbia and the marbled corridors of power - they are the real monsters in our midst.




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