How does an Ulster Protestant think?

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A war of words is currently raging between catholics and protestants over the right of Protestants and Orangemen to march in Belfast to mark The Ulster Covenant Centenary.

This is taking place against a backdrop to a serious debate about how Catholics and Protestants are going to come to terms with living ‘in a normal integrated society.’

Is this a utopian aspiration?

In an exposition on Ulster Protestants in his 1991 publication ‘Faith and Faction’ Maurice Irvine penned these words:

‘While there are numerous obstacles to the dissolution of this communal division and to the growth of a normal integrated society in Northern Ireland, it is evident that the decisive one, that to which all others are subordinate, is the deep-seated hostility permeating the Protestant community to the Roman Catholic ethos.

While it is not contested that there are some reasonable grounds for disquiet, it is argued that the virulence and intensity of the sentiment in the Ulster psyche is far beyond anything that can be justified by events in the past or by the present sociological realities. 

This neurotic fear can probably not be eradicated or moderated by anything the Irish Catholic community can do; its irrationality renders it impervious to outside influence. Its removal, if this is ever to come about, must derive from within the Protestant community itself.’

Do you recognise yourself?


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About Author

Eamonn Mallie

I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.


  1. No I don’t recognise myself. I am from a Protestant background, I’m not religious but I was brought up in the Church of Ireland, like the majority of Protestants in the province. Quite often when Northern Ireland Protestants are spoken about it is the firebrands that are used as examples, the religious fundamentalists; Paisleyites, creationists etc. It is they who those words spoken by Maurice Irvine relate too.
    This may be because the fundamentalists are the ones in power, we only have to look at the recent issues surrounding the inclusion of creationism at the Giant’s Causeway to see that. They are the people with the loudest voices and sharpest elbows who talk for an entire community when in reality their views are only matched by a minority. Their views then become associated with all of us no matter what the majority may actually believe.

    • So who’s voting for the religious fundamentalists in power? I’ve long
      moved away from Northern Ireland but from what I see of home there seems
      to be something in the suggestion of an irrational mindset in parts of
      the Protestant community. Around the time Irvine was writing his book,
      the Berlin Wall was coming down, Mandela was released, the hole in the
      ozone layer was discovered, Berners Lee was inventing the world wide
      web… The world has changed utterly in the past 21 years, but it often
      feels like the same old same old in Northern Ireland. I despair when I
      read about the Giant’s Causeway and creationism, racist attacks on eastern Europeans and the apparently inalienable right to stage provocative marches outside Catholic churches.

      • In the coming days I will attempt to ascertain what has changed in the Protestant way of thinking over those twenty years or so. It should be said however neither community has a monopoly on sectarianism.

      • misterbaz – I think you’ll find that many/most Pro-Union voters aren’t voting – hence the fundamentalists monopolising the seats in the Assembly. That’s why (because I believe in Father Christmas) that there is a place for an inclusive, pluralist Pro-Union party and the only party that could fill that gap would be a renewed, revived and effective UUP. Complementary to more fundamentalist unionists and completely strong on the Union and Culture but interested in equality, job creation, liberal social policy etc. Fanciful but I’d vote for them if I was in Northern Ireland.

    • Thank you Richard for giving your opinion. Needless to say we will hear other similar voices to yours and some not so similar.

  2. Every day I witness the small and not so small naunces of a sectarianised society around me. I have lived here most of my adult life having been reared in Scotland. Life here is all so deeply ingrained in its divided culture and society. My very simple answer to this position of a Protestant identity which Eammon flags up that it is impervious to reason regarding accomodation with the Catholic community is this: – I have many Protestant friends, some in quite ‘high places’. I personally subscribe to the view that we should be tolerant of other’s world views, and where a view really gives offence then it must be challenged. The systems of challenge and thereby processes of change are critical for social and political stability. When things get ‘hot’, it just takes the shooting of an Arch Duke Ferdinand figure to light the fuse and history takes its own course. The little people can make the positive difference. And there are plenty of them on both sides of the divide. I saw ‘Playboy of the Western World’ in the Lyric theatre on its opening night last week, and really, have we as a people with our backs to the Atlantic ocean moved on in a hundred years?
    Time for change all round… and wearing the badge of mutual respect.
    I understand Maurice Irvine’s arguments, but they are quite fatalistic when you get down to it. I believe change can and will take place and like the process of evolution, will not be measured in perhaps a mere lifetime but more in the annals of history.
    The survival of the fittest is not of the ‘strongest’ but of those most suited to adaption.
    And sometimes species have to commensulate to survive. Will we even one day see a variation emerge of Homo Shankhillmick? I wonder.
    I’ve probably overwritten on this but like most people, it all presses my button and I’m truly cheesed off with it all.

  3. The issue of Protestant ‘identity’ is complex and I’m not sure how helpful that quote is. As you have observed Eamon, no one has a monopoly on sectarian thinking. However, as it is, perhaps something of a perceived negativity in the Protestant community relates to the fundamentally conservative nature of the Unionist political and ‘ethnic’ context. The Protestant ‘defends the faith’ or ‘preserves the union’. Protestantism in that sense ‘holds’ rather than concedes. (I’m using the term Protestant in the non theological manner).

  4. VictorCarmichael on

    Hi Eamonn,

    Can’t say I do recognise myself. Your quote is from 20 years ago, suggesting that protestants are inherently sectarian in their outlook, hatred seeping from their pores, polluting all of their thinking towards the Catholic community. Not so.

    Was the Protestant community really like that 20 years back? I think the name on the bible in the picture is significant. The firebrand rhetoric was alive and well in the 80’s & 90’s and if we had have listened to it, more of us would have joined the UVF. Thankfully the rhetoric on both sides has eased.

    Most of the chatter on forums and in the press suggests that sectarianism is a one-way street. When I hear this, I remind myself that the first Catholic I seen was throwing bricks at me on Duncairn Gardens.

    Regards, Victor

  5. Susan McKay’s “Northern Protestants – an Unsettled People” (2000) gave an unsettling assessment similar to Irvine’s, and it seems many unpleasant things have happened since then to support it. I don’t however get the impression from Eamonn’s quote that Northern Protestants necessarily are said to have ‘hatred seeping from their pores’; rather it’s suggested that the preconceptions they hold arise from deeply-held, though irrational, beliefs and fears. That is, where McKay says “unsettled”, Irvine says “neurotic”.

    One recalls the explanation in which a psychotic is said to be like one who believes to plus two equals five. A neurotic, however, is like one who knows two plus two equals four – but he’s not happy about it.

    On holidays in Minorca, many years ago, we met a very nice and friendly Protestant couple from the North, also staying in our hotel. One day, we all took a guided tour which included a visit to the Catholic Cathedral in Ciudadela; the description ‘ a profusion of religious iconography’ doesn’t quite do justice to its interior. Later, in the bar, the husband clearly had something on his mind: he drew me aside, and quietly asked “Is it true youse Catholics worship statues?” To say I was stunned at this, from an otherwise apparently rational adult, would be a major understatement.

    My own somewhat limited knowledge of the North is from reading authors from all sides and from none. This of course doesn’t confer an ability to make worthwhile comment; still, it’s a commonplace that real change in any given culture happens very slowly – and some aspects are said not to change at all. Are Northern Protestants now less unsettled? Less irrational? Has any of it gone away? As Eamonn also says elsewhere, neither government seems to care any more; they jolly well should. There may be an Agreement, but clearly the far bigger and more difficult task of Reconciliation hasn’t even properly begun. Why, for example, do people from one side find it impossible to talk to the other about a parade both seem to want to go ahead? Incomprehensible, to a simple southerner, unles there’s more to it than we’re told.

    In the South-east where I live, there’s a story about the ‘Kilkenny Cats’, in which soldiers (Cromwell’s, of course) quartered in the city would occasionally capture two cats and cruelly tie their tails together. The resulting cat fight – which would continue until both of the animals were exhausted, to resume only when both had sufficiently revived – provided a welcome passing diversion for the bored troops, ’tis said.

    The idea of two unfortunate animals, antagonists united only in being unable to separate, is compelling. There are still many cats in Kilkenny, I hear; some are wild, and some are very disciplined indeed – but cats they remain, nonetheless. “Briseann an dúchais tré shúile an chait”, goes the Gaelic proverb; Heredity breaks out through the cat’s eyes. Mind you, I’m not saying anything; it’s only a story, after all.

    • VictorCarmichael on

      TR – your story about the guy in the Cathedral isn’t a surprise. But there is a broad spectrum of people within the protestant community, suggesting that none of us have moved on or changed our attitudes just isn’t the case.

      It’s interesting to note that some of the most sensible noises on this site are coming from Loyalists ex-prisoners. Who would have thought that 20 years ago!

    • I agree that Eamonn is trying to start a debate and discussion on a perception of ‘Ulster
      Protestants” towards their fellow ‘Ulster Roman Catholics.’

      very definition, the Protestant or Reformed faith, is theological
      diverse so their ain’t one ‘protestant’ denomination in Ulster and thus
      ignorance by the writer back in 1991 to brand ‘all’ as ‘the same’.

      On the flip side is the Roman Catholic Church which is not theologically diverse & rules by dictat.

      small, incestuous nature of this Island where the might of ‘the church’
      reigned for so long still has a majority of people here (as in Norn Iron) raised in a
      very repressed quasi pseudo-religious-order view of ‘others’.

      There is a
      certain element of Roman Catholics and Protestants (of all
      denominations) who never, ever meet let alone worship with ‘the other
      side’ and it institutionalizes suspicion, sectarianism & down right
      falsehoods – but it is endemic on all sides. Thus Tuskar, your experience does not surprise me.

      no, not all Ulster-Prods are the same, just as not all Roman Catholics are the same – with ignorance, repression & sectarianism getting a rattle by all.

      As someone placed in the
      “Ulster Prod” category because I was christened & raised a Methodist (by well
      intentioned people wishing me to believe in the God of Genesis) in the
      heart of Empire (Woodvale & Shankill Roads), I must categorically
      state that I personally don’t practice any man made dogma but that’s another thread itself…..

  6. I think it must be
    inbuilt in the Ulster Protestant’s mind a sense of fear, control and a desire
    to be wanted. I myself come from this background and rejoice greatly in being
    called ‘Irish’.

    From as far back as
    1169 with Richard de Clare we have seen oppression of the Irish people from
    invaders and indeed between 1534 and 1691 – this period is marked by a Crown policy of
    plantation involving the arrival of thousands of English and Scottish
    Protestant settlers (my ancestors) and the consequent displacement of the
    pre-plantation Catholic landholders.

    As the military and political defeat of Gaelic Ireland
    became more pronounced in the early seventeenth century, sectarian conflict
    became a recurrent theme in Irish history and has sadly continued to this very

    One only dreads to imagine the savagery of days gone by.
    As an Ulster Protestant, I think myself lucky to have been brought up in a
    tightly-knit community in Northern Ireland where family values, friendship and
    brotherly love are celebrated. My parents moved me to another school as they
    wanted me to have a broader outlook and mix with people from every background.
    I’m glad they did, some of my best friends are Nationalists and Catholics and I
    have a great relationship with them. We share political opinions, talk about
    Church, exchange prayer cards (or mass cards) when there is a tragedy in either
    family and I have found their faith a real ‘rock’ to me and my Christianity.

    In essence an Ulster Protestant is seeking belonging and
    there is a desire to be wanted by the UK, this desire leads to right wing Protestantism
    and Christianity which we have seen so much of recently on the news. I am often
    reminded of the phrase in the Nicene creed used by both Protestant and Roman
    Catholic churches ‘We believe
    in one holy catholic and apostolic Church’ or indeed that majestic hymn ‘Thy hand, O God has
    guided’ with the final phrase of each verse ‘One Church, One Faith, One Lord’.

    Looking at the situation from West Berkshire, England
    where I live with my wife and Irish Terrier (what else!) and where the UK and indeed
    Western civilization is under threat from new terrorism. You guys in NI have no
    idea how lucky you are!

    Move on and adapt!!

  7. Stephen McCartney on

    I agree that these Protestants you speak of are horrible people. I am and I am not one of them. I grew up on that side of the fence but question the intelligence of anyone she believes in any god.
    Why are these horrible Protestants (as in community) so bitter and twisted? From reading the responses here the answer is a complete mystery! Yet, of course there is an answer but I will be accused of being sectarian and using whataboutery if I dare utter the answer.

  8. I don’t really see how the Protestant determination not to live under nationalist rule is or was any more “virulent”, “intense”, “neurotic” or “irrational”, than the corresponding determination of nationalists not to live under unionist rule.

    Nor is the desire by unionists for self-rule and self-determination (the former now abandoned to support the latter) irrational, any more than the same desire amongst Turkish Cypriots or Bosnian Serbs, the Jews in Mandate Palestine or the desire for consociationalism in Belgium, Lebanon or Switzerland rather than majority rule. You cannot merely throw together any set of people on a given land mass and expect it to be a successful democracy. Democracy requires the nation state and through historical happenstance neither Northern Ireland nor the island of Ireland are nations. They fail the test Ernest Renan had in his lecture in 1882 “What is a nation?”, where he defined the nation as a “daily referendum” dependent on the will of its people to continue living together.

    A united Ireland wouldn’t change any of that, it would simply bring the need for a new political dispensation to accomodate the multinational nature of the island of Ireland.

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